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South Africa may test first 'pharming' crop

(Wednesday, July 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Cape Times, 07/13/04: London - Genetically modified plants are to be used to grow vaccines against rabies and Aids, scientists have announced.

Europe's first field trial, announced on Monday, is likely to be carried out in South Africa because of fears over crop vandalism in Britain.

The GM crop could dramatically reduce the cost of producing vaccines.

Dubbed "pharming" by its opponents, the announcement is the latest step forward in the development of technology that allows medicines to be grown in plants.

Although this project is concerned with injectable vaccines, other trials under consideration could extend the research to oral vaccines, which might be grown in edible raw food such as bananas.

However, concerns about direct action by environmentalists opposed to GM crops has led to the scientists behind the project collaborating with a South African research institute that has offered to grow the first crop.

The EU has awarded €12-million to a pan-European consortium of scientists who aim to develop the technology for growing GM plants that can be turned into vaccines.

Professor Julian Ma of St George's Hospital Medical School in London, the scientific co-ordinator of the project, said it would take about two years to develop the technique.

Clinical trials of the first vaccine derived from GM plants are planned to take place in 2009.

"Plants are inexpensive to grow and if we were to engineer them to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product, they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccine at low cost," Ma said.

"The current methods used to generate these types of treatments include genetic modification of human cells and micro-organisms.

"These techniques are labour intensive, expensive and often only produce relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals," he said.

It is likely that the first pharmaceuticals crop will be either GM maize or GM tobacco that will be engineered with a set of genes for making prototype vaccines against either HIV or rabies.

By purifying the proteins from the harvested crop scientists hope to mass-produce vaccines.

South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is participating in the research and is particularly interested in potential vaccines against HIV, the Aids virus.

Friends of the Earth warned the research could have "widespread negative impacts".

The organisation's GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Growing medicines in plants has serious implications for both human health and the environment."

Ma said 3,3 million people a year die from preventable diseases such as TB and diphtheria yet there is not the industrial capacity or funds to produce enough vaccines for everyone.

"The cost of doing nothing is measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of people who will die from preventable diseases," he said.

"We recognise that this is contentious technology but I think many of the fears are unfounded."

Philip Dale, a plant technologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the project's biosafety co-ordinator, said the cost of 24-hour surveillance of GM fields in the UK has made it expensive to conduct similar trials in Britain.

Greenpeace activists led a campaign to target sites where GM crops were grown as part of the farm-scale trials.

"It is vitally important that this (field trial) is not destroyed at the end of it," Dale said.

Measures for containing the crop both physically with fences and by genetic barriers such as the use of sterile genes for preventing cross pollination are being studied, he added. - The Independent

This article was originally published on page 3 of Cape Times on July 13, 2004, http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=143&art_id=vn20040713032524739C767287