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Human embryo research is highly controversial

Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 18:11 GMT 19:11 UK Alternative cell source investigated

By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

Adult stem cells could be just as versatile as embryonic stem (ES) cells as a source of new tissue for transplant, according to research just published.

Scientists have been working with special stem cells taken from the bone marrow of rats.

These cells were injected into mouse embryos, where they transformed into most, if not all, of the cell types in the body, showing they have the potential to replace or repair tissues which have become diseased.

Other related research, also published by the journal Nature, shows that ES cells can generate neurons in the brain to effectively treat the symptoms of Parkinson's disease in rats.

More powerful

ES cells are arousing great interest among scientists because of their ability to become virtually any type of body cell - this is why they are often called "master cells".

But they are controversial because five-day-old embryos have to be destroyed to obtain them.

Using stem cells obtained from adults may overcome the ethical objections, but so far scientists have yet to show clearly that they have the full flexibility of ES cells.

Now, Professor Catherine Verfaillie and colleagues, at the University of Minnesota, US, may have produced the evidence to show the versatility is there.

They cultured adult rodent stem cells taken from bone marrow which normally can only differentiate into mesenchymal tissues, such as bone, muscle and fat.

But hidden in these cultures, they isolated more powerful stem cells, given the name multipotent adult progenitor cells or MAPC.

'Too early'

Put into rodent embryos, these MAPC differentiated into most, if not all, of the cell types in the body. And injected into adults, they could be prompted to become specific kinds of tissue such as the lining of the liver, gut and lung.

Professor Verfaillie's team has also discovered MAPC in human bone marrow.

So are MPAC just as versatile as ES cells? Professor Verfaillie told the BBC: "At least in the studies done today, MAPC appear to have potency close to or possibly similar to ES cells. MAPC do not, however, form tumours, at least not that we have seen so far.

"So, that may be an advantage over ES cells. It is hard to say at this early stage whether, like ES cells, we will be able to coax MAPC in vitro to all the same cell types that have been shown for ES cells, as we have not yet tested.

"Therefore, it is too early to make any firm comparison."

Delight and caution

The research has received a cautious welcome by leading scientists and ethicists.

Professor Tom Kirkwood, of the Department of Gerontology at Newcastle University, UK, said: "These are very exciting reports. We really need to understand just how versatile adult stem cells can be, and whether embryonic or adult stem cells can transform correctly when put into adult tissue."

Tom Baldwin, Professor of Philosophy at York University, said: "This is exciting news about the potential of adult stem cells. But it is much too early to conclude that research involving embryonic stem cells is unwarranted."

A spokesperson for the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said: "We think this research is important and exciting and we're watching developments in this area very closely."

Recovery signs

Peter Garrett, from the British charity Life, told BBC News Online: "I think it is remarkable research and vindicates the line of argument we have been using for the last three years.

"You don't need to kill embryos to treat sick people. There is a population of pure stem cells in adult bone marrow that can be transformed into anything."

In a separate paper, also published online by Nature, scientists show that mouse ES cells can be used in cell-replacement therapy in an animal model of Parkinson's disease.

From cultured ES cells, the researchers generated a large supply of neurons that produce the brain chemical dopamine. When transplanted into the brains of rats with damaged dopamine neurons (modelling Parkinson's disease), the neurons worked normally.

The rats even showed signs of recovery.

The larvae of the species destroy the crop

Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK Worm turns for US cotton farmers

By Stephen Evans BBC North America Business Correspondent

A quiet battle between genetic engineers is underway in the cotton fields of Arizona.

At a secret location there, genetically modified pink bollworms (Pectinophora gossypiella) have just been released to see how they behave in the wild.

They are the first GM insects to be released anywhere, and they have been freed under netting. But if the experiment is deemed a success, the insects will be further modified and released into the great wide spaces where they will breed but produce no offspring that survive.

In effect, they will have been modified to destroy their own species - which is where the competition between engineers comes in.

High price to pay

Such a mutant insect would be bad news for Monsanto; the chemical company already sells genetically engineered cotton plants to farmers who complain bitterly about the price.

Monsanto's modified cotton is resistant to the bollworm which devours cotton.

So, the farmers are backing the alternative genetic modification of the insect itself.

At the moment, farmers can use chemical sprays to kill the insects, or they can irradiate them in a laboratory - radiation makes the insects sterile.

Both measures are expensive. To find a cheaper way, the idea is to alter the insect's genes so the bug is sterile.

In a laboratory in Phoenix, insects have been modified, initially in a harmless way: they have been released under netting just to see whether they survive, whether they thrive even, whether they mate.

The idea then is to introduce a new gene from a fly into their make-up, and this gene will make them non-productive. The insects will mate as normal but no destructive off-spring will result.

If that works, the farmers would then not have to buy modified cotton plants from Monsanto. But will it work, and will it be safe?

The scientists involved say the strictest safeguards are in place.

Measured risk

Opponents say that already there are questions about the ability of insects to pass mutations to bacteria in the soil, for example. And once bacteria mutate, the mutation could take on unpredictable paths, they claim.

The difficulty is that there are no certain ways of predicting consequences. It is a matter of balancing risk.

On the one hand, the benefits of cheaper cotton are huge, not just for American farmers but for poorer farmers in India or Mexico, and for consumers the world over.

On the other, though, the cost of getting it wrong in terms of destroyed ecosystems could be high.

Much depends on how tough the United States Department of Agriculture decides to be in its monitoring of the tests.

There is intense pressure from the farmers to get the modified insects approved.

The unanswerable question is whether the USDA would stand against the producers if doubts about potential danger started to surface in the tests that are now underway.

Friday, 26 July, 2002, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK S Korea launches cloning inquiry

Scientists say cloning is not yet safe for humans Prosecutors have been asked to investigate a company's claim that it has implanted a cloned human embryo in a South Korean woman.

Health officials in Seoul have so far been unable to authenticate the claim by Clonaid, a US-based religious sect.

South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare has now asked the Seoul District Public Prosecutors Office to start a criminal investigation.

South Korea has no law banning human cloning so investigators will concentrate on whether laws that ban unlicensed or unethical medical activities or practices have been violated.

Kwak Gi-hwa, a spokesman for Clonaid's South Korea office, said this week that its head office made a Korean woman pregnant with a cloned embryo, with help from BioFusion Tech, a firm based in the southeastern city of Daegu.

Mr Kwak told the BBC the woman was two months into the pregnancy with the implanted foetus, but did not give more details.

Crime denied

A director from the health ministry, Lee Jae-yong, told the Associated Press news agency that BioFusion denied conducting any experiments on human cloning.

"Everything remains under the veil, so we have had to ask the prosecution to intervene," he said.

Both South Korea's health and science ministries have drafted separate laws that would ban cloning of humans and limit stem cell research.

The two bills are being combined into one which is reportedly being put on the fast track for approval by the National Assembly.

Scientists who have been involved in animal cloning overwhelmingly believe that at present human cloning is unsafe; that the risk of problems is simply too high.

BioFusion, however, says it is sure the technology is safe, and that the pregnancy could be terminated if problems do emerge.

BioFusion's parent organisation, Clonaid, was founded by a religious cult, the Raelian Movement, which believes life on Earth was created by extra-terrestrials.

GM DNA passes into Gut Dominion July 2002

DNA material from genetically engineered crops can fmd its way into human gut bacteria, according to research commissioned by Britain's 'Food Standards Agency. ' Researchers at the University of Newcastle in the north of England say in a report issued yesterday that they gave seven volunteers, who had had their lower bowel removed, a single meal of a burger and milkshake containing gene-spliced soya. Samples of intestinal bacteria were taken and, for three of the seven, a herbicide-resistance gene from the GE soya was detected at a very low level. Genetically engineered or modified material in most GE foods poses no risk to human health, but many GE crops have antibiotic-resistant marker genes inserted, raising con- cerns that the ability to fight infection could be compromised if such material passes to humans.. The researchers also cultured bacteria from samples taken before the GE meal was eaten, which also had low levels of the herbicide-resistance gene. "It is surprising that a relatively large proportion of the GMS [genetically modified soya] dna survives passage through the small bowel in view of the digestion that occurs in the stomach," the report says. The researchers fed the same meal to 12 other volunteers, whose stomachs were intact but no GE material or bacteria containing herbicide-res- istance genes were detected in their faeces. An agency spokeswoman dismissed fears that human resistance to illness could be harmed. "Because of the low levels of dna, there's no evidence that this would affect antibiotic resistance, which is why the researchers concluded that the likelihood of dna being taken up by bacteria in the human gut is extremely low," she said. Environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth said the report's findings raised serious questions about the safety of GE crops. "This report should set alarm bells ringing. Industry scientists and govermnent advisers have always played down the risk of this ever happening, but when scientists looked for it they found it," a spokesman said. "GM food should be withdrawn from the market and further research must be commissioned as a matter of urgency." - Reuters

Spark of Life

SCIENTISTS have discovered the gene that provides the spark of life, when an egg is fertilised by a sperm, in research that promises dramatic advances in fertility treatment and cell experiments. A 10-year study has revealed that the gene in sperm tirggers the crucial process by which an egg starts dividing to form an embryo, solving a two-century old medical science mystery. The b , ugb, by ers at the University of Wales College of Medicine in Car-diff and University College, London, should help infertile couples and treatments that use cloned stem cells to tackle Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Scientists believe it will eventually allow them to fertilize eggs using sperm that have previously been considered useless, and to improve success rates in therapeutic cloning. It has long been known that fertilisation is followed by a surge of calcium but the molecules that start this process have remained elusive The Cardiff team, led by Tony Lai, professor of cell signalling, has found that the new gene, which they call a "swm factor", makes a protein called PLCzeta that kick-starts the vital calcium reaction. It appears to hold the key to generating a new life. "We're thrilled to be at the fore front of such an exciting discovery," Professor Lai said. "The potential benefits to medicine are immense. "We knew that a calcium spark, or wave, throughout the egg caused it to start dividing, but we didn't know what generated it. Now we've found that this single molecule kicks the whole process Off." The researchers believe many men are infertile because their sperm, though otherwise and nornal lack the gen 'but ftuther re- search is needed. If this is so, it should be possible to inject the protein into an egg with a single sperm cell it it needs to form a viable, embro . It could help produce cloned embryonic stem cells, with which to produce tissue for treating degenerative disealses. PLC-zeta should greatly incfrease the success rate of cell nuclear, replacement, the process used to clone Dolly the sheep In Professor Lai's experiment, details of which are published in the respected journal Development, the' ' PLC zeta molecule was added to unfertilized mouse eggs in the labora- tory. This led to a calcium surge, and the eggs developed into pinhead-sized cell clusters called blastocysts - the first stage of embryo fmmtion. The blastocysts did not go on to form viable embryos because they lacked the full complement of maternal and paternal genes, but the study proves tho principle that PLC-zeta is vital to fertilization. Professor Lai is now investigating if the gene and protein also exist and have the same effect in human beings. Mouse sperm behave in similar fashion to human equivalents. Jerry Schatten, professor of reproductive science at the University of Pittsburgt said the study was of great significance. "The search for the sperm factor that awakens the egg began two centuries ago and is vital for understanding how a fertilized egg starts life anew. Innovative strategies for male contraceptives, new therapies for overcoming infertility, and significant breakthroughs in embryonic stem cell potential are all anticipated now because of this remarkable discovery." - The Times

Starving African Countries forced to Reject GM-Corn

Authorities in drought stricken Zimbabwe and are reluctant to accept the genetically modified corn say aid officials. More than 13 million people in southern Africa urgently need food aid, according to the US Agency for International Development. But Zimbabwe and Zambia have said genetically modified food could contaminate their crops and threaten exports to the European Union, which does not accept genetically modified food. Zambia's President, Uvy Mwana- wasa, said: "It is necessary to examine the maize before we can give it to our people and I'm certain if it is found to be safe then we will give it "But if it is not then we would rather starve than get something toxic"

Khaled ur, spokesman for the United Nations World Food Pro- gramme, which is sending the US-donated food to Africa, said aid meant for Zimbabwe has previously been diverted to Malawi. But as the food shortage gets more acute, both Zambia and Zimbabwe are looking to accept the corn if it is milled.

"We asked'the Government of Zambia to take corn meal corn soy or even milled corn," said Neil Sorensen a programme associate at the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit research organization. It will not address health concerns but it will address the concern of contamination and seed supply." Sign Chabvonga, a spokesman for the Zimbabwean Embassy, said his nation would accept the shipment of kernel corn if it was milled first so it could not be planted. The US and Zimbabwe were now deciding who will pay the milling costs. "Once it is milled, we are okay with it" Chabvonga said. "Now we are just working out the cost, which should not be an insurmountable problem. The Zimbabweans are concerned that people may plant whole corn, contaminating the country's food supply.

It is also a large supplier of beef to the EU, which does not accept genetically modified food or cattle feed. "It is unfair that we are being put in a situation where people are saying, 'Beggars are trying to be chooisers'," Chabvonga said. "If we are not prudent, we will be laughed at later." The State Department's top official to Africa, Werner Kanstemer, said yesterday that the US and Zimbabwe were close to an agreement on the issue. - BLOOAMERG

NZ Moves to 100% Testing for GM Seeds

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has a new testing regime to check imported seeds of both sweetcorn and maize for contamination with genetically modiced DNA. After a political review this month, MAF said every shipment would be tested, instead of one in three, which was its previous position. The new regime covers the area that became pivotal in the election campaign, when author Nicky Hager alleged GM-contaminated sweetcorn seeds had been imported in an incident later covered up by the Government. The new regime makes New Zealand one of the first countries to adopt a regulation for systematically screening imported seeds for the presence of GM material. New Zealand had to deal with its own scare over GM seed contamination m 2000 when tests showed minute traces of GM content in imported sweetcorn seed. Environment Minister Marian Hobbs said "a more detailed evaluation" concluded that, if present at all, the GM material was at levels below that which could be reliably detected. But four weeks ago, during the election campaign, Mr Hager disclosed that over the summer of 2000-2001 Government officials actively worked towards tolerating 0.5 per cent GM contamination in imported sweetcorn seed, and abandoned the concept only when the original tests with some positive results were reinterpreted.

Some countries, such as the United States, have few requirements to distinguish between GM and conventional crops. New Zealand farmers annually import 186 tonnes of sweetcorn seed, of which 161 tomes comes from the US. Since August last year, all consigmnents of imported sweetcorn seed have had to be tested for the presence of GM seeds. About 56,338kg of seed has been imported during the past year in 25 consignments, about two-thirds from the US. Most shipmnents (17 containng 54,492,kg) were tested overseas, and eight (1846kg) at the border. One of these, 2.7kg from the US, tested positive in January and was incinerated. Two other shipments to were destroyed when the importers baulked at paying for testing. From October, canola seed imports will be tested, with plans to test soybean seeds from January . Under the revised import health standard for Zea mays seed - sweetcom, maize and popcorn -

For sowing, all consigninents must be tested for the presence of unapproved GM seeds. But MAF yesterday announced a potentially significant new loophole - if it is satisfied that the source country has sufficient systems in place "to provide a level of assurance equivalent to testing every consignment" the tests will not be required - seeds imported from countries without commercial production of GM varieties were "extremely unlikely" to contain GM seeds. "These countries' regulatory systems may provide equal or better assurance that their seeds are not contaminated than the assurances provided by testing," MAF would develop a standard setting out criteria for deciding whether countries were free from commercial production of GM varieties, and had sufficient controls at thew borders and over any inclusion of GM crops to provide a level of assurance equivalent to testing every consignment. Until then MAF would consider applications from countries in consultation with other new agencies and publish its decisions. Once approved, routine testing of seeds will not be required, though MAF might conduct random testing of imports. - NZPA

GM potatoes deter one pest but attract another 10:05 01 June 02
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
An attempt to make potato plants resistant to sap-sucking insects has highlighted the unpredictability of genetic engineering. The modified plants unexpectedly turned out to be vulnerable to other kinds of insect pests, demonstrating how important it is to assess each transgenic crop individually.
Crops such as maize and cotton have already been made resistant to chewing insects by adding a gene for the bacterial toxin Bt. But Bt does not deter sap-suckers like aphids, so genetic engineers are looking at other natural substances to keep insects at bay, such as the lectin proteins found in many plants and seeds.

Lectins have a controversial history. It was lectin-transformed potatoes created by Arpad Pusztai that set off a storm in Britain about the safety of GM food. Now Nick Birch's team at the Scottish Crop Research Institute near Dundee has found that potato plants transformed with lectin genes have lower levels of bitter-tasting chemicals called glycoalkaloids that make plants unpalatable to many mammals and insects.

Glycoalkaloid levels in the leaves of the lectin-transformed potatoes dropped by up to 44 per cent. This seems to be due to the genetic engineering technique itself, because introducing another type of gene, for another potential insect deterrent called cowpea trypsin inhibitor, also caused glycoalkaloid levels in the plants to drop by 70 per cent.

The team warns that plants with lower glycoalkaloid levels could be more vulnerable to a range of insect pests, including the potato leafhopper. And reduced levels of the glycoalkaloid alpha-chaconine actually stimulates the potato aphid to feed.

Cracked stems

The results are surprising, says Angelika Hilbeck, an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who studies the risks posed by GM crops. "We need to learn a lot more about the unintended side effects of the various transformation techniques."

While the potatoes were only experimental varieties, unexpected side effects have also turned up in commercial GM crops. The stems of a herbicide-resistant soya bean created by Monsanto were found to crack open in hot climates, for instance (New Scientist, 20 November 1999, p 25).
Unintended effects also occur in traditional breeding programmes, points out Howard Davies of the Scottish Crop Research Institute. But he says new techniques should help us to get a grip on the problem.

"Technologies are now being developed to measure several hundreds, if not thousands, of metabolites in plants using metabolic profiling procedures," he says. These approaches, along with techniques that can profile thousands of genes or proteins simultaneously, should help reveal any possible unintended effects caused by genetic transformation, he says.
Journal reference: Annals of Applied Biology (vol 140, p 143)