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GE Future is Bright for New Zealand

GE Future is Bright for New Zealand
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

This week the Environmental Risk Management Authority, the independent body that regulates genetic science, approved a genetic engineering application by AgResearch, the Crown research institute.

In effect, ERMA gave the go-ahead for human and animal genes to be inserted into cows for the purpose of producing therapeutic proteins in milk that could be used in medical treatments. While the research has widespread ramifications, people with the incurable disease multiple sclerosis are seen to be a particular group who may benefit.

ERMA took a cautious approach, taking double the time allowed under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to reach their decision. They also imposed very strict controls on the project, reduced the timeframe for the work and insisted that no genetically modified material enter the food chain.

The application process cost an estimated $500,000, far more expensive than similar applications overseas. This is an issue of major concern for a country that has a proud history of innovative breakthroughs in science and medicine. Unless the cost of applications becomes more reasonable, much GE research will be out of reach of everyone except government agencies or those in the private sector with the deepest of pockets.

As a result of ERMA’s decision to allow GE outside of the laboratory, there has been an outcry from the ‘green’ lobby that this is the beginning of the end. They conveniently choose to forget that humans have used genetically modified animal products for generations.

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Diabetics who cannot produce their own insulin have used pig and cow insulin, found to be almost identical to human insulin, for much of this century. Present day human trials using transplanted cells from baby pigs are showing new promise.

Major advances in the treatment of diabetes were made in the 1980s through the production by bacteria of genetically engineered human insulin. Sufferers of cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and human dwarfism have all benefited from similar technologies in which human genes are grown in bacteria. Similarly, a copy of the gene for chymosin, a protein enzyme from the stomach of calves which has been widely used in cheese making since the eighties, is also grown in bacteria.

This history of the widespread use of genetically modified medicines and foods by humans shows that claims by the green lobby that New Zealand is GE free are nonsense. GE has been in the food chain for years, and while progress in GE should indeed proceed with caution, it should nonetheless proceed.

Fortunately, ERMA ignored the political scaremongering of the radical green movement and instead came up with a sensible decision that sends a signal to the science community and to those investors who are seeking a stake in the future, that New Zealand is forward-looking and willing to embrace new technologies.

The reality is that while information technology became the most significant area of progress in the latter half of the last century, it will be genetic engineering in this century. New Zealand cannot afford to be left behind.

The benefits of GE will be far-reaching and encompass all walks of life. I recall a couple of years ago visiting a company that had almost completed the gene mapping of pine trees. While they believed that their research would be widely sought after internationally, it was their next challenge that created a groundbreaking opportunity for this Kiwi company. They were working on the gene mapping of kauri trees in order to isolate the gene that is responsible for kauri shedding their branches.

Imagine what would happen if they could successfully implant that kauri gene into pine trees so that instead of needing to be pruned they simply shed their branches? The move would revolutionise forestry, putting New Zealand at the forefront of progress in that industry.

As in most new fields of human endeavour GE has the potential to create a future of opportunity that is not only exciting and challenging, but will also produce unimaginable benefits to consumers through lower prices, greater choice, better services and an improved quality of life.

ERMA’s decision to proceed with caution has ensured that New Zealand has a stake in that future.

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