View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

GM rice with the potential to fight rotavirus

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Last week, a paper was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation by scientists who have developed GM rice which protects mice from rotavirus. They engineered ‘MucoRice-ARP1’ by adding the gene for an antibody produced by llamas to fight rotavirus. The rice then has the potential to protect against rotavirus and to treat it.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in young children and kills over than 520,000 people each year. Vaccinations protect against it, but are only around 50-60% effective in developing countries. The rice is proposed as a compliment to vaccination programmes, rather than an alternative.

Although the majority of deaths occur in developing countries, tens of thousands of American and Japanese children are hospitalised for this each year.

The antibody is resistant to degradation in the gut, making it suitable for oral administration. It also retains its ability to protect against rotavirus when the rice has been stored for over a year and when it has been boiled.

We’re a good 10 years away from this becoming a useful technology for people. Development of the crop and tests on humans will all be required, and there will be a strict approval process to go through. Most medications take the pharma industry over 10 years to develop.

The authors also propose developing this technology for protection of other pathogens such as norovirus.

This, to me, is a potentially brilliant idea. The arguments against this seem very different from the environmental arguments associated with traits such as herbicide tolerance (I’m not sure, for example, what the plan is for patents/distribution). It would be a shame if important arguments against other GM varieties were used in relation to this one.

Use of medicinal/nutritionally-enhanced GM crops also opens the arguments widely used in relation to golden rice: there are other solutions. Clean water would be a far better solution to preventing rotavirus because it would have so many other health benefits. However, as we are clearly unable to deliver this, isn’t tackling rotavirus in other ways a major step forwards?

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who is more opposed to this because part of a mammalian gene was used. For me, safety is the only issue, not ethics of the species it came from.

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

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