‘Pharming’ to combat disease

SCIENTISTS have revealed plans to use genetically modified plants to create vaccines against AIDS, rabies, diabetes and TB.

It is a European project, but the first field trial will most likely be carried out in South Africa, because of fears over crop vandalism particularly in Britain, The Independent reports.

The project will be carried out by a pan-European consortium of scientists, and it has received close to £8.6m in funding from the EU.

Professor Julian Ma of St George‘s Hospital Medical School in London is the scientific co-ordinator for the project, and he told The Independent that the first crop is planned to be grown in 2006.

Clinical trials of vaccines from the GM plants are expected to start in 2009.

The project‘s primary aim is to develop medicines for the developing world, and it has the potential to produce greater quantities of vaccines at lower costs than traditional methods.

The scientists have identified the genes to be inserted into plants to make them produce antibodies that can help treat rabies, TB and diabetes.

Sue Mayer, director of the lobby group GeneWatch, told The Guardian that the researchers should pledge to make their technology free to all in order to prevent it being taken over by pharmaceutical companies.

Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: “Growing medicines in plants has serious implications for both human health and the environment. 

“We recognise the need for affordable medicines to be made available to people with life-threatening illnesses, but this research could have widespread negative impacts.”

“Food crops in the United States have already been destroyed because of contamination by experimental ‘pharm‘ crops. 

“A clear set of criteria must be established to ensure that human health and the environment are protected.”

“Any benefits must genuinely reach those that need them, rather than simply lining the pockets of the biotech and pharmaceutical industry,” said Ms Oxborrow.