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PHARMING -- A WORD TO WATCH
EDITOR'S NOTE: Pharming is only one of dozens of new words being grafted
onto the English language by revolutionary advances in technology. But
this one may have a far greater impact on the health and welfare of the
world's poorest countries than other advances in science and technology
like the computer. PNS associate editor Walter Truett Anderson is a
political scientist and author of numerous books exploring future trends.
PNS stories can also been seen on our web page at
BY WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON, PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Even as you're straining to add all those new words from the world of
computers to your vocabulary, try this one from biotechnology --
You've seen it here and there in gee-whiz news reports about the
bio-engineered cow that gives medicinal milk, or the new kind of tobacco
plant that helps cure, rather than cause, cancer. What you may not know
is that pharming -- the manufacture of medical products from genetically
modified plants or animals -- is growing by leaps and bounds. And unlike
the computer, which so far has mainly benefitted the developed world,
pharming's biggest beneficiaries may be the world's poorest regions --
those left largely behind by advances in science and technology.
Among pharming's most promising products are sheep's milk containing a
protein that can be used to treat emphysema, and a goat's milk with a
human antibody useful in cancer therapy -- both now in chemical testing
stages. Then there's a sunburn preventative made from a genetically
modified tobacco plant that is just now reaching the market. But
pharming's most revolutionary product is likely to be edible vaccines --
foods that can confer immunity to certain diseases.
Take the banana. As a pharming product, this tropical fruit is being
transformed, according to Dr. Charles Arntzen of the Boyce Thompson
Institute for Plant Research, into an inexpensive vaccine delivery system.
Working with tobacco, Arntzen and his colleagues have already obtained a
hepatitis B vaccine that is chemically the same as the kind now produced
commercially, at high cost, from serum derived from infected blood or by
fermenting genetically engineered yeast. Their next step was to produce
plant vaccines that could be eaten instead of injected. By far the most
successful is a potato that, when fed to laboratory mice, makes them
immune to cholera and other diarrhetic diseases.
The potato vaccine is now moving to the human testing stage. The only
problem is that few humans -- especially babies -- are willing or able to
eat the raw potato and cooking destroys the antigen. So the project is
now growing an experimental crop of bananas with the same antigen.
Such a banana vaccine would have an immeasurable impact on the health of
the developing world, where diarrhetic diseases cause up to 10 million
deaths annually, particularly among children. But the impact would be
equally great on the economic side, giving impoverished countries the
potential for what amounts to a low-cost, low-tech domestic vaccine
production industry. Since bananas don't require refrigeration, there
would be no storage problem -- a high cost item for ordinary vaccines,
which need to be stored at low temperatures.
Other researchers are looking at a wide range of possible food-based
vaccines. Some are extreme longshots -- an AIDS vaccine, for example, or
an edible vaccine against the bacteria that cause tooth decay. And
there's the growing field of agro-pharmaceuticals -- medicines produced
by pharming that aren't vaccines.
Big companies like Bayer and Bristol Meyers are pouring a lot of money
into research on pharm products because they figure pharming will be, in
the long run, a much cheaper way to produce vaccines. A recent study by
researchers at Iowa State University estimates animal pharming to be
"five to ten times more economical on a continuing basis and two to three
times cheaper in start up costs than cell culture production methods."
Given this economic incentive, it is entirely possible that some methods
of producing vaccines could become obsolete as quickly as your old Apple
computer. The serum method of producing hepatitis B vaccine was already
superseded by the biotech method of fermenting genetically modified
yeast, and that in turn could well be superseded in the near future by a
vaccine made from plants.
While this undoubtedly will set off competitive flurries in the
industrialized world, it could also set the stage for a major new
agricultural industry in the least developed regions of the world. Even
as some counties may have a long way to go to get a computer in every
village, they may be far closer to developing tobacco farms, banana
plantations and herds of genetically modified goats -- the chemical
factories of the future.
(07081996) **** END **** (c) COPYRIGHT PNS