USDA Backs Production of Rice With Human Genes

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

The Agriculture Department has given a preliminary green light for the first commercial production of a food crop engineered to contain human genes, reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high-tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods.

The plan, confirmed yesterday by the California biotechnology company leading the effort, calls for large-scale cultivation in Kansas of rice that produces human immune system proteins in its seeds.

The proteins are to be extracted for use as an anti-diarrhea medicine and might be added to health foods such as yogurt and granola bars.

"We can really help children with diarrhea get better faster. That is the idea," said Scott E. Deeter, president and chief executive of Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience, emphasizing that a host of protections should keep the engineered plants and their seeds from escaping into surrounding fields.

But critics are assailing the effort, saying gene-altered plants inevitably migrate out of their home plots. In this case, they said, that could result in pharmacologically active proteins showing up in the food of unsuspecting consumers.

Although the proteins are not inherently dangerous, there would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins, said Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science policy advocacy group.

"This is not a product that everyone would want to consume," Rissler said, adding that other companies grow such plants indoors or in vats. "It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors."

Consumer advocacy groups, including Consumers Union and the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, have also opposed Ventria's plans. "We definitely have big concerns," said Joseph Mendelson, the center's legal director.

Ventria has developed three varieties of rice, each endowed with a different human gene that makes the plants produce one of three human proteins. Two of them -- lactoferrin and lysozyme -- are bacteria-fighting compounds found in breast milk and saliva.

A recent company-sponsored study done in Peru concluded that children with severe diarrhea recovered a day and a half faster if the salty fluids they were prescribed were spiked with the proteins.

Deeter said production in plants is far cheaper than other methods, which should help make the therapy affordable in the developing world, where severe diarrhea kills 2 million children each year.

"Plants are phenomenal factories," Deeter said. "Our raw materials are the sun, soil and water."


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