Azara Blog: Insulin might be produced by GM plants

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Date published: 2007/04/04

The BBC says:

Insulin produced by genetically modified plants - with a human gene added - could be on the market in three years, a Canadian company has claimed.

Sembiosys said it has made scientific breakthroughs and found a short cut through current drug regulations.

The firm's CEO Andrew Baum said his company could become one of the first to sell a plant-based pharmaceutical.

However, critics believe that these products pose greater environmental and health risks than GM food crops.

Most insulin is now produced by genetically modified bacteria, inside sealed tanks. The new technique uses GM plants grown out in the open.

The company is growing insulin in the seeds of safflower, a relatively little-used seed oil plant. The safflower is being grown on a trial basis in fields in Chile, the US and Canada.

Their crop is grown counter-seasonally to reduce the risks of the insulin-producing genes crossing to other plants.

Mr Baum said: "Sembiosys believes it will be one of the first - or the first - company to get a plant-based pharmaceutical on the market."

Sembiosys has predicted an "explosion" in demand for insulin because of a growing number of diabetics. Moreover, new methods of delivering the drug, like inhalation, require more insulin per dose than injections.

Mr Baum said that one large North American farm growing his safflower could meet the global demand for insulin - and that the price of the drug could be cut significantly.

If the firm can demonstrate that the plant-based insulin is identical with human insulin, it won't have to go through all the long and costly stages of full clinical trials.

Mr Baum said he saw his product as part of a new wave of GM plants which could help change public opinion - particularly in Europe - in favour of the technology.

He said: "While the first wave of products were really focussed on the farmer and improving agricultural economics, there's an increasing emphasis now in the industry on products that address more direct consumer benefits and consumer needs."
However Clare Oxborrow, of Friends of the Earth, said the risks of contamination from pharmaceutical plants was actually greater than from food crops.

She said there had already been contamination incidents with experimental pharmaceutical plants.

Sooner or later the so-called environmentalists will be laughed out of court. FoE again show themselves not to be so much Friends of the Earth as Enemies of the People. They managed to demonise GM food in Europe because the middle class saw no benefit for themselves from GM food and the middle class determined public policy. But with health-related GM products the so-called environmentalists will soon enough find themselves deserted by the middle class, who will see clear benefits for themselves. Whether this particular insulin product turns out to be any good in the long run of course remains to be seen. But it should certainly be given the opportunity to prove itself, and not be scuppered by a hysterical minority.

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