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Human genes in safflower plant

Farmers are growing genetically modified (GM) crops that contain human genes to produce insulin.

The Canadian firm Sembiosys is growing insulin in the seeds of GM safflower, a seed oil plant, in trials in Chile, the U.S. and Canada. The company claims it will be able to sell a plant-based form of insulin within three years. The plants are able to produce insulin because they have been genetically modified to contain human genes.

The GM industry see this as part of a new wave of plants which could help change public opinion in its favour. Experts already claim to have modified tobacco so it produces a vaccine for cervical cancer. However, green campaigners remain sceptical.

Sembiosys chief executive Andrew Baum said: “Sembiosys believes it will be one of the first – or the first – company to get a plant-based pharmaceutical on the market.”

Insulin is used by diabetics to control their sugar levels and maintain a healthy body.

Mr Baum claims one large North American farm growing his safflower could meet the global demand for the drug. He suggests this would lead to a significant cut in the cost of insulin, which is currently manufactured in the sterile conditions of laboratories all over the world.

Consequently, it would be more affordable to Third World nations.

Mr Baum told BBC TV’s Newsnight: “While the first wave of products were really focused on the farmer and improving agricultural economics, there’s an increasing emphasis now in the industry on products that address more direct consumer benefits and consumer needs.

“The goodness of what we’re doing is so clear. People who are dying of diabetes will eventually get insulin.”

Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow warned there had already been contamination incidents with experimental pharmaceutical plants. “It’s worrying enough when it’s a crop intended for human consumption,” she said.

“But when it might be a pharmaceutical crop in the future that contaminates the food chain, that raises serious worries and questions about the risks involved for human health.”

Article by Sean Poulter for The Daily Mail, UK


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