Thursday, March 11, 2010

Will the dawning of the biotech age be the season to let the sunshine in???

Finally had time to filter the hundreds of email news alerts that I sign up for to keep tabs on the latest happenings in biotech and the health sciences. I came across an interesting article about a company that is planning to produce a new kind of insulin from the safflower (source of picture) plant that is "physically, structurally, and physiologically indistinguishable from pharmaceutical-grade human recombinant insulin." The aim is to meet the projected need for more and cheaper insulin for use such as to be administered through non-injected means ie. inhaling through the nose (where else?) and by other means. Mind boggling? Just picture this. The global market for insulin is projected to grow to US$11.8 billion by 2010 and demand for insulin to 16,000 kilograms by 2012 as more people around the globe become prone to diabetes. This will give you an idea of the value of this possibility. Imagine harveting safflower seeds for the oil and extracting insulin all in one process. It boggles the mind!

The transgenic safflower has been genetically modified to produce pro-insulin, the precursor to insulin, produced by beta cell of the islets of Langerhans of the human pancreas. The pro-insulin sequence of DNA in human pancreatic cells was fused to the gene of safflower together with sequences from the common bean to express an oleosin-human pro-insulin protein exclusively in the safflower seed. The recombinant DNA technology used to modify plant genetic material to create a new gene that could produce insulin does not employ bacterial plasmids but the gene sequences from the bean does the trick.

How do we harvest the insulin? From the oil I suppose. Well, it does seem like it is a great idea but there has been and will still be arguments and counter arguments on the potentially adverse impact on health and environment wrought by genetically modified food crops. Yet the list of genetically engineered plants and animals grows ever longer beyond the earlier attempts to genetically modify soya beans (source of picture), corn (source of picture), potatoes (source of picture), tomatoes (source of picture), rice (source of picture) and now the safflower. Possibly the list is even longer than we realise. The photos used here are not of GM foods. I just thought some
photos of the familiar might jolt us into realising the times they are a changing. What is familiar today might not be the same tomorrow.
Personally, the only transgenic plants I have ever come across were the rubber trees (source of picture) that I saw when I visited the Rubber Research Insititute of Malaysia (RRIM) research station years ago (now merged with the Malaysian Rubber Board). The transgenic rubber plants were modified to produce a human protein - human serum albumin - in its latex as a cost-effective means for high volume production of less expensive useful proteins. Just imagine tapping the rubber tree for the milky latex (source of picture) for purposes beyond turning it into rubber tyres, shoes, gloves, insulation etc but it's been a while since I heard about the latest progress in this landmark research. I wonder what's happening with that research now?

Blogging about genetically engineered flower power has made me think of The Fifth Dimension, the group that sang the anthem of the hippie generation "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in" in celebration of the dawning of the age of Aquarius - an age of love, light and humanity. Will the dawning of the age of biotech be the beginning of a new "let the sunshine in" era that will be a blessing for humanity?? Let's hope it will not be otherwise.


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