Genetically engineered food the medicine of the future?

Experiments in genetic modification of plants for therapeutic purposes are currently being carried out around the world, Greece included. Thessaloniki University’s Genetics Laboratory, in cooperation with the Pasteur Institute and the French Center for Medical Research in Athens, have been involved in work designed to defend the human body against certain diseases, such as producing peppers containing the antigen to hepatitis C. At the University of Virginia, a group led by Kriton Hatziou, a Greek researcher, has produced a protein in tobacco that fights Gaucher disease (a rare but serious inherited disorder which leads to an early death). The only currently known cure for this disease requires 10 tons of female placenta for each patient. Other scientists say the undertaking is neither simple nor altogether beneficial, since it is not at all certain that transferring and spreading genes into modified plants will not result in genetic pollution. They believe that producing food therapies can do more harm than good, disturbing the equilibrium of the ecosystem and the homeostasis of organisms. Inoculation by eating Biotechnologists suggest that one inoculates oneself by eating. They have turned to the use of plants, as the cost of biomedicine is particularly high. Special antibodies added to plants operate to prevent infectious diseases in humans and animals, such as the bacteria causing tooth decay, peptic ulcers, or cancer of the digestive system. Professor Athanasios Tsaftaris, of Thessaloniki University’s Genetics Laboratory, said that the antibodies are polymeric proteins that can easily strengthen plants. «After independent improvements to the composition of each protein separately, the polymeric proteins are constructed by cross-fertilizing these plants,» he said. In particular, alpha-1 antitrypsin in rice is produced in large quantities and will be available in pharmacies in 2003 or 2004, to be used in combating liver diseases. Other products are: genetically modified rapeseed, which already circulates in Canada to prevent thrombosis; genetically modified potatoes, which help against cirrhosis of the liver and as a blood substitute; tomatoes with modified enzymes to treat hypertension; mustard plants for the blood disorder neutropenia; and some varieties of rice to combat hepatitis B and C. In actual fact, immunizing human organisms is a complex question, according to Anastasios Kourakis, assistant professor at Thessaloniki University’s Biology and Genetics Laboratory. «An unsuccessful experiment could cause resistance to microbes and viruses, if an antigen is produced in a large amount,» he told Kathimerini. «Embarking on such an undertaking without exhausting all the parameters or evaluating all the possible effects would be extremely dangerous,» he said. Kourakis proposes that instead of using science to heal wounds inflicted by technology, it would be better to use science to predict the possible effects of technological developments.

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