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Will GE cows help multiple sclerosis sufferers?

Jeanette Fitzsimons Green Party co-leader General Debate speech 9 May 2001

Will GE cows help multiple sclerosis sufferers?

Last week the High Court ruled that the decision of the Environmental Risk Management Authority on an application by Agresearch to genetically modify cows with a human gene fell "woefully short" of the requirement to state the criteria it relied on in its decision. This made ERMA's decision unlawful and that approval was set aside by the court.

Some have attacked the resulting delay to the project by saying it was a mere legal technicality. We need to be very careful before we dismiss the rule of law. The HASNO Act and ERMA's own methodology which is legally binding on them requires applications to be considered against a set of criteria. The public has a right to know that these criteria have been properly observed and that decisions are not just made on whim.

Meanwhile sufferers from Multiple Sclerosis and their families have been outraged that this will somehow obstruct efforts to find an effective treatment for this terrible disease. This view has been encouraged by statements from people who ought to know better that the genetically engineered cows somehow offer the best hope there is for that disease.

There has been a great deal of rhetoric and little fact and it is time now to lay some of the facts on the table.

MS is a terrible disease. I have watched a personal friend slowly lose her ability to enjoy life at a relatively young age and I greatly admire the courage of those who persist in living life to the full despite this debilitating disease. I would never do anything to reduce their chances of a cure.

However, Agresearch is not a medical research institution. It has absolutely no experience in multiple sclerosis, neurology or base myelin protein. It is involved in agricultural research and the purpose of this project is to try to use cows to manufacture bulk quantities of a protein. That is where this project will stop. There is no indication who, if anyone, will then do the clinical work with that protein to see if it is useful and if so, develop a drug.

The first question to be asked, is what evidence is there that human base myelin protein will help MS? Various scientists and medical specialists have been privately expressing doubt to me but few are prepared to go on the record when they all depend for research funding on the body who funded this project. So it has taken a little time to track down evidence on the record.

The Department of Neurology of Massachusetts General Hospital reports an experiment they describe as "the most thorough trial to date" where a group of patients received a large daily dose of MBP for 2 years. I quote: "however new bouts and continued progression were observed in treated patients. "On the basis of trials that have been done, this treatment should not be regarded as effective."

No doubt there will be further therapeutic trials of different fractions of the protein and we strongly support this. Clinical trials are the first obvious step and there is much more to be done in this area. But the question here is, supposing this material was eventually found to be of some use for MS, what is the best way to make the quantities we need? This question was never asked before public money was spent on this ill fated experiment.

There is plenty of information to show that MBP can be produced in several other ways and in fact can be ordered commercially now.

Research Diagnostics in NJ advertises myelin basic protein from post mortal human tissue at $70 per mg with discounts for bulk orders. That is perfectly adequate for in vitro research.

Then there is the statement obtained this morning from Laurence Steinmann, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University and author of 241 published papers of which 37 relate to multiple sclerosis. He says: "Human or cow MBP can easily be made in bacteria or other microbes by fermentation. There is no need to produce it in cows at present, until someone might prove that it is necessary for a human therapeutic and that they need amounts beyond the capacity of recombinant techniques and fermenters." I would point out that these techniques use genetic engineering in a contained laboratory which the Green Party has consistently said it does not oppose.

These comments from Prof Steinmann back up the statements of Professor Dick Wilkins, a biochemist at Waikato University who reports that scientists find this experiment potentially embarrassing and damaging as the basic science behind the work simply would not stand up to review.

Neither of these scientists oppose genetic engineering but both are concerned that scientific claims should be based on fact.

This project was part of a three part application to ERMA to genetically engineer cows. The application says all three are funded by the taxpayer through the Foundation for Research Science and Technology and Agresearch's own budget. The other two parts were approved earlier and are in progress, changing the genetic make up of cows in order to change the protein composition of their milk. GE food has been hugely controversial in NZ and I have always suspected the multiple sclerosis angle was designed to increase the acceptability of a technology they mainly intend to use for food production.

The question of why Agresearch would claim medical benefits from their work that have not been demonstrated remains unanswered, but the question we as Parliamentarians should ask is why was taxpayers' money used to fund a project like this without first answering, what is the problem we want to solve, and is this the best way to solve it?

But our commercially driven science system has instead asked, how can we use our ability to make transgenic cows to make something we can convince someone else to want? That is not science, it is marketing and Agresearch should admit it.

We as Parliamentarians should be looking closely at the accountability mechanisms that are supposed to ensure good use of taxpayers' money. If in fact this part of the bigger project was funded by Agresearch itself, rather than by FORST, what peer review process was there to check its scientific validity?


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