18 October 2005


One of the potentially huge developments in biotechnology which is off the radar screen of most people is "Pharming", i.e., using genetically modified plants and animals to produce drugs. Popular Science has noted in its November issue (in a short piece that I can't locate on line) that a British researcher has now developed a chicken that lays eggs laced with a melanoma (i.e. skin cancer) drug. In June, it featured a sixty acre underground pharming operation in an old mine in Indiana, run by Controlled Pharming Ventures, in cooperation with researchers from Purdue University, that allays the concerns that the crops with contaminate conventional crops nearby.

The fears aren’t based on mere conjecture. In 2000, evidence of a genetically modified corn intended only for animal consumption showed up in Taco Bell taco shells. Aventis CropScience, the corn’s grower, quickly abandoned the product and was forced to pay $2.4 million to people who said they had suffered allergic reactions to it. Two years later, federal officials fined the biotech company ProdiGene $3 million for allowing pharma corn carrying an experimental pig vaccine to contaminate soybeans in Iowa and Nebraska. Regulations have since been tightened, and the young industry suffered a huge blow when biotech behemoth Monsanto abandoned its biopharming research in 2003. Although several plant-produced biopharmaceuticals are still under clinical evaluation, none have reached the market yet.

Similar cases on a more mundane level are developing in New Zealand, where organic farmers want to keep ordinary genetically modified crops away from their fields, so that cross-pollination with the GMOs (genetically modified organisms) does not void their organic designation under New Zealand law.

The Holy Grail of this research is to be able to reduce the costs of manufacturing drugs. The chickens producing cancer drugs, for example, could reduce the cost of producing those drugs by 99%. Animal applications, which don't present the same concerns about isolating pharming operations from food supplies as plant do, have also been suggested as a possible panacea for Third World medicine. For example, even a rural village with marginal municipal water supplies, no electricity, and no one with more than a high school education might be able to benefit from a goat genetically modified to produce milk laced with antibiotics or antimalaria drugs, which a narrowly trained village paramedic and goat caretaker might be trained to know when and how to provide to fellow villagers.

At the other extreme, a single large scale feed lot of genetically modified cows with a small scale processing plant might be able to provide the entire United States with supplies of a variety drugs now produced by skilled technicians at dozens of factories across the country.

Such resources would also damp the rush to harvest rare plants and animals with medicinal value at potentially great ecological costs. When some experimental cancer drugs can sell for $5,000 for a month's supply, which hundreds of thousands of people are ready and able to pay, money is often no object when it comes to seeking out ingredients, and the vast majority of people can't afford to benefit from them.

Also, as the federal government, with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, has now become a major partner (estimates are that the program may cost as much as $700 billion in the first ten years), in the prescription drug market for elderly Americans, a development that could slash the prices of even a handful of currently expensive drugs could have a major impact on the fiscal solvency of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as private health insurance plans.

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