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2-Plants: Pharmaceutical GE corn poses some challenges



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TITLE:  Pharmaceutical corn poses some challenges
SOURCE: Des Moines Register/The Courier-Journal, USA, by Philip Brasher
        http://www.courier-journal.com/business/news2003/07/14/
        biz-2-corn14-3934.html
DATE:   Jul 14, 2003

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


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   "This is an opportunity for a few -- emphasize few -- elite farmers who
    are willing to be trained, sign off on the standard operating
    procedures and follow them to a T," said Allan Felsot, a Washington
    State University scientist who follows the industry."
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Pharmaceutical corn poses some challenges

WASHINGTON -- The problem of keeping pharmaceutical corn out of the food
supply is leading companies to look at other types of plants -- and at
regions of the country other than the Corn Belt -- for producing biotech drugs.

"It's going to be a tremendous challenge to get the food (industry)
comfortable with growing the crop in an area where a lot of the crop is
grown" for food, said Andrew Baum, who leads the Biotechnology Industry
Organization's committee on plant-made pharmaceuticals.

Baum is chief executive of SemBioSys, a Canadian company that engineered
safflower to make pharmaceutical proteins. Safflower can be used for
vegetable oil, but relatively little of it is grown in North America.

Companies are reporting success at engineering pharmaceutical products in
a range of plants, including rice, barley, tobacco, lettuce and even a
tiny aquatic plant called lemna.

Many of the companies working on corn, including agribusiness giants
Monsanto and Dow, are growing the crop in places such as California and
Hawaii.

"Biopharming" promises to save drug companies money. Today, companies
make human antibodies by cultivating animal proteins in fermentation
complexes that can cost $500 million or more to build. Harvesting the
proteins from genetically engineered plants could cut costs in half,
experts say.

"This is an opportunity for a few -- emphasize few -- elite farmers who are
willing to be trained, sign off on the standard operating procedures and
follow them to a T," said Allan Felsot, a Washington State University
scientist who follows the industry.

Food companies are worried that a pharmaceutical crop could contaminate
food supplies. Their concerns were heightened last fall when corn
engineered to make a pig vaccine contaminated a grain elevator in Nebraska.

That scare prompted federal regulators to tighten growing restrictions
for pharmaceutical corn -- and it provided a new sales pitch to companies
using plants other than corn.

Corn is a popular choice with drug designers because it can produce a lot
of protein and it can be stored for months without the protein breaking
down. A plant such as tobacco must be frozen.

But corn also can spread its pollen for long distances, making it
difficult to prevent contamination of food crops.

That's why companies such as Biolex of North Carolina are using plants
such as lemna, an aquatic plant grown in greenhouses. Biolex has research
agreements with Bayer Corp. and a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

Unlike corn, lemna doesn't need seeds or pollen to reproduce. New plants
sprout off old ones. The plants secrete the pharmaceutical proteins into
the water they grow in. "The major advantages of this system are speed,
economics and regulatory compliance," Biolex executive David Spencer said.

Last fall, BIO briefly imposed a voluntary ban on growing pharmaceutical
corn in the Midwest, only to back down under pressure from Sen. Charles
Grassley, R-Iowa, who leads the Senate Finance Committee.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture increased its oversight of
pharmaceutical cornfields this year.




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