You would think so. Unfortunately, anti-biotech radicals are trying to turn a wonderful scientific advance into a depressing political controversy. If they succeed, an innovative new technology that could alleviate much suffering might not reach the people who need it the most.
The drug in question already exists. In fact, it isn’t even a drug. Instead, it’s a pair of proteins that are found naturally in mammalian breast milk, including that of our mothers. They’re called lactiva and lysomin, and one of their primary functions is to boost the immune systems of infants.
But some infants would benefit from a little extra. Acute infectious diarrhea, for example, kills millions of people each year, many of them babies. (Some researchers estimate that number is over five million children per year) Plenty of others become very sick. Virtually all of these maladies result from contaminated drinking water in the developing world. We can only imagine the hopelessness felt by a mother holding her dying, dehydrated child.
Cleaner water is the ultimate solution to this problem–but fully addressing this root cause will take a very long time. Today, we need short-term responses that can save lives right now. That’s why it makes sense to pursue pharmaceutical solutions–and figure out how to deliver additional lactiva and lysomin to at-risk children.
One of the most creative ideas involves growing these proteins in rice plants. A biotech company is currently researching this method in Kansas. If this project eventually succeeds, it will become much less expensive to produce the proteins that go into the pills that can save infants from a brutal killer.
In a recent clinical trial, 140 children with diarrhea were given an electrolyte solution containing rice-grown lactiva and lysomin. They recovered from their illnesses more quickly and were less likely to relapse than children in a control group. The results were published in last month’s Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.
Down the road, it may also be possible for rice-grown treatments to help cancer victims recover from chemotherapy. One of the great dilemmas of chemotherapy, of course, is that although it often represents the only hope for cancer victims, it’s a dangerous remedy because it ravages the immune system. Many people who have cancer don’t die from it, but from pneumonia that they can’t fight off because of their chemo-weakened immune system.
It turns out that supplements of lactiva and lysomin may help them, too. At the very least, a new generation of drugs derived from enhanced rice plants could improve the survival rates of chemo patients.
So let’s recap: We have the potential to produce an inexpensive medicine that may save the lives of infants and cancer sufferers.
This is controversial?
The enemies of biotechnology say so. They’re banking on something called the “ick factor”–the notion that an idea is so icky that a misinformed public will reject it. In the case of rice that produces lactiva and lysomin, the “ick factor” depends upon disgust with the concept of putting human genes into plants.
Sure, it sounds a little odd, especially on first glance. But rice doesn’t produce lactiva and lysomin on its own. We essentially need to trick the plants into making these proteins. The miracle of biotechnology is that we can.
The opponents are waging war with propagandistic press releases. “If these pharmaceutical crops end up on consumers’ plates, the consequences for our health could be devastating,” claims one European protestor.
That statement is made possible by near-complete ignorance. For one thing, the amount of protein produced in any kernel of rice is so tiny that it would be impossible for anyone to receive a clinical dosage simply from eating a bowl of it. For even one child to be treated, the company must have access to a large amount of rice so they can extract and purify enough protein for a clinical dosage.
Moreover, these crops are effectively segregated from the food chain. Kansas isn’t a rice-producing state, which is why it’s the host of these promising field trials.
Biotech-enhanced foods never have hurt anybody. In the not-to-distant future, they may heal us. Genetically enhanced rice presents us with an opportunity we’d be foolish to refuse.
Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology, grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over twenty years.