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SMC Heads-Up: GM wheat, fighting viral hepatitis and ozone

SMC Heads-Up: GM wheat, fighting viral hepatitis and ozone anniversary

Issue 198 14 - 20 September

In This Issue
GM Wheat
Celebrating ozone
Viral Hepatitis
New from the SMC
Sciblogs highlights
Research highlights
Policy News
Sci-tech events

Media Registration
More About Us
Contact Us

Safety of Aussie GM wheat questioned
Genetic modification continued to capture headlines this week, with media reports of potential safety concerns rejected by scientists scrutinising the claims.

At a press conference in Melbourne on Tuesday, Prof Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury and Assoc Prof Judy Carman from Flinders university, expressed concern over the potential health effects of GM variety of wheat the CSIRO is trialling in Western Australia.

The academics were commissioned by pressure group Safe Food Foundation to provide expert opinion on the safety of the GM crop. The wheat in question has been engineered to produce 'silencing' RNA molecules which prevent a particular gene from being expressed, leading to the wheat containing more hard-to-digest starch (roughage) with the aim of improving bowel health.

Prof Heinemann claimed: "The molecule created in this wheat - intended to silence wheat genes - can match human genes, and through ingestion these molecules can enter human beings and potentially silence our genes".

Assoc Prof Judy Carman further noted that if the RNA molecules also silenced a similar gene (GBE) in humans it would result in liver dysfunction, possibly leading to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

However, intellectual property concerns prevented the pair from accessing the actual RNA sequence used by CSIRO, forcing them to base their report on speculation as to what possible sequences might have been used.

Australian scientists fired back blistering responses, calling into question the motives and methods of the experts involved.

"Essentially we have two scientists who appear to be ideologically opposed to GM crops and who studiously ignore the majority of the scientific literature and data", said Prof Peter Langridge of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, University of Adelaide.

"They have tried to give the appearance of credibility by writing a couple of scientifically flawed articles, rather than have these assessed through the normal process of peer review...This is not helping an informed discussion about the technology."

Closer to home, Assoc Prof Peter Dearden, Director of Genetics Otago dug in deeper on Heinemann's claims, telling the SMC, "small RNA molecules made in plants have been found to cross into humans via the digestive system, and may affect human genes. This effect is, however, sequence specific. So if the human genome has no DNA sequence similar to the small RNA, then nothing can happen."

Analysing the arguments raised in the report, he said CSIRO researchers could avoid any theoretical risk by targeting regions of the plant's gene that are clearly different from the human gene GBE. The chain of events required to cause disease was in his opinion, "easy to avoid and unlikely".

Elaborating further in a blog post, he said raising safety concerns via media statement alone cost the researchers some credibility.

"By not engaging with the decision-making process, but then releasing a scientifically-backed query about the plants, you make it look like your aim is to disrupt, rather than inform, Dearden said. "Now there is mistrust and anger, neither of which helps the general public get the high quality, safe products they deserve."

Further expert commentary from Australian and New Zealand scientists can be found here. Video of the press conference and the documentation behind the Safe Food Foundation's claims is available here.
On the science radar...
Presidential psychopaths, new 'old' monkeys, boozing pigs, mammoth cloning effort, bird funerals and boil-free surfaces.
Ozone protection turns 25
This Sunday marks the 25th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement which ended the use of CFC's and slowed destruction of earth's ozone layer.

Dubbed "the world's most successful environmental agreement", the Montreal Protocol was implemented in response to the discovery that certain commercially used gases, such as CFCs, were damaging the UV absorbing ozone layer.

The Montreal Protocol is the only treaty with universal ratification - all 197 member countries of the United Nations have now accepted legally binding obligations to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances.

New Zealand plays a key role in monitoring the ozone layer, with NIWA's Lauder station specialising in measuring CFCs, Ozone and UV light levels. The Crown Research Institute drew criticism from the International Ozone Commission earlier in in the year when it announced plans to cut staff at the South Island station.

While the destruction of ozone has slowed, the hole has not disappeared. In fact, the largest hole ever recorded was seen in 2006. September sees it grow to its maximum extent each year, affecting UV exposure in lower latitudes including New Zealand. You can see regular updates and the latest images on NASA's Ozone Watch site.

Want to know more about the Montreal Protocol? The Australian science commentary website, the Conversation, has produced a five-part series exploring the science and politics behind the treaty.
Experts target viral hepatitis
Leading health experts have warned that rates of liver cancer will soar over the next decade if urgent action isn't taken to curb the leading cause of the disease, viral hepatitis.

Experts from across Australia and New Zealand gathered in Auckland this week to issue a public statement calling on government, health departments and others to take immediate action.

"A substantial scaling up of resources and efforts is needed to stop these epidemics in their tracks - otherwise liver cancer will continue to be among the fastest increasing causes of cancer death in Australia and New Zealand," the 'Auckland Statement' reads. The statement was released on Monday night as part of the 8th Australasian Viral Hepatitis Conference.

Viral hepatitis is the No.1 cause of demand for liver transplants in Australia and NZ. Deaths from hepatitis-related liver cancer are growing at the same pace as deaths from melanoma and are likely to treble by 2030.

More than half a million people in Australia and New Zealand are thought to be living with chronic hepatitis B or C infections. These people may currently have no symptoms but without treatment, can progress to liver cancer or failure.

At its core, the statement has an ambitious goal to halve the rate of new hepatitis C infections by 2016. According to the statement, a focus on providing sterile injecting for equipment users of intravenous drugs will be critical to preventing the spread of viral hepatitis.

A webcast of the 'Auckland Statement' release of can be viewed here, and a round-up of media coverage is available on the Science Media Centre website.

Quoted: New Zealand Herald

"Why can't we do it? Is it just inertia again? Do we need better science training for people who run businesses? Should we do more at university level to help people appreciate science? I'm not sure what the answer is."

Dr David Krofcheck on NZ companies' lack of investment in R & D

New from the SMC

Experts respond:

GM Wheat: Two scientists, working in conjunction with the Safe Food Foundation in Australia, claim CSIRO-developed genetically modified wheat may have unintended effects on humans. However other experts disagree with their assessment of the risks associated with the modified crop.
In the News:

Hepatitis conference: In Auckland this week experts called on government, health departments and others to take immediate action to prevent increasing rates of viral hepatitis and subsequent liver cancer.

Smart ideas: Gels to stop bleeding, heat reflecting paints and nanomaterials made from fish eyes and are just a few of the high-tech ventures receiving funding in the latest government investment round.

Reflections on Science:

Medical spin: Don't just blame the media when it comes to hyped coverage, new research puts some of the blame on the scientists themselves.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

An angel lines up in books' corner - Peter Kerr looks at some literary evangelists set to go viral - because every one loves to share a good read.

Tim Minchin explains ENCODE - Science savvy comedian Minchin breaks down the latest genomic breakthrough in a clip highlighted by Aimee Whitcroft.

Does eating transgenic wheat destroy your liver? Peter Dearden picks apart the headlines regarding this week's Aussie GM stoush.
Southern Genes

Antibiotic myths -Siouxsie Wiles mythbusts some mythbusting on the matter of antibiotics.
Infectious Thoughts

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Moa Meals: New Zealand researchers studying moa remains from several significant 13th-15th century CE archaeological deposits across the east coast of the South Island, have found new evidence of how the birds were hunted to extinction. DNA analysis of remains revealed that humans commonly ate moa eggs (over 50 of the giant birds eggs' were identified at one site) and were more than twice as likely to catch male birds as females.
Quaternary Science Reviews

Medicinal Plants: Cross-cultural comparisons of plants used in traditional medicine should guide future drug discovery efforts, says a new study. Researchers analysed 1,500 medicinal plant species from three distant parts of the globe: Nepal, New Zealand, and the Cape of South Africa. They found that the same species of plants were being used to treat similar conditions in separate regions despite a lack of cultural overlap. Future studies could help focus bioprospecting efforts on traditionally used plants that are most likely to be effective.

Preventing falls in the elderly - what works?: Some interventions can go along way to preventing falls in older people who are living in their own homes, but others might be a waste of time and money - or even increase the likelihood of a fall. A new comprehensive analysis has attempted to identify which is which. Working in New Zealand, the UK and Australia, a team of seven researchers considered evidence from 159 trials involving 79,193 participants, to identify the most effective ways of preventing falls. Exercises, safety equipment, better drug management and vision improvement were among those interventions which were backed up by evidence.
The Cochrane Library

Omega-3 heart benefits found lacking: Greek researchers have performed a large-scale systematic review and meta-analysis to determine the association between omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) supplementation and major cardiovascular outcomes. The study, which included data from over 70,000 patients, found no statistically significant association with all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, heart attack, and stroke when all supplement studies were considered.

Deaf gerbils hear: A cell-based therapy that restores responses to sounds in deaf gerbils is presented in Nature this week. The study reports the generation of ear-like cells from human embryonic stem cells, and shows that these progenitor cells can differentiate into functional cells involved in auditory response. The ability to reinstate auditory neuron functionality may pave the way for a future cell-based treatment for some forms of deafness. Image available.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:
ETS slammed: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright says planned changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme will be a costly and environmentally damaging mistake. The changes are part of the ETS amendment Bill currently before select committee. Dr Wright made a submission on the bill this week.

PGP applications open: The Ministry for Primary Industries is calling for applications for its co-investment fund, the Primary Growth Partnership (PGP). The fund invests in programmes of research and innovation that will boost the economic growth and sustainability of New Zealand's primary, forestry and food sectors.

Conservation projects: The Department on Conservation has announced the 66 new projects to be funded in the latest round of government biodiversity funding to enhance management of indigenous biodiversity on private land.

Upcoming sci-tech events

New Zealand Applied Neurosciences Conference - 14-16 September, Auckland.
Forums for the Future: Between Rich and Poor - Political columnist Colin James, health researcher Philippa Howden-Chapman, and Stephanie McIntyre, Downtown Community Ministry Director, discuss the effects of inequality - 13 September, Wellington.
Examining the future of alternative fuels: Tauranga Cafe Scientifique - 17 September, Tauranga.
Agriculture, Science and the Arts - Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, Inaugural Professorial Lecture - 18 September, Hamilton.
Adolescent brain development: implications for policy, practice and pastoral care - Nordmeyer Lecture given by Professor Harlene Hayne - 19 September, Wellington.
Wellington Rocks! Earthquake briefings for Wellington residents - a joint project from GNS Science and the Wellington City Council - At various locations throughout Wellington, September - October.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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