All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for January 2003

GE turns law into an ass

New Zealand Herald

Scientists at state-owned AgResearch must be tearing their hair out in despair. As must the country's 3500 multiple sclerosis sufferers. Their hopes of a ground-breaking medical breakthrough are again threatened by a legal challenge. If such were not already the case, it is now apparent that anti-genetic modification lobby groups will use any means at their disposal to try to impose their will. In particular, statute books will be scoured for technical trip-wires. The merit and intent of the research are irrelevant. The anti-GM brigade will not be happy until this country has become a biotechnology backwater.

Their latest ploy involves Mothers Against Genetic Engineering, which is seeking a High Court review of the Environmental Risk Management Authority's decision to approve an AgResearch project to develop genetically modified cattle. The group claims the authority overstepped its legal powers in the scope of its approval. It does not mention, of course, the stringent and public regulatory process that preceded the approval, a procedure that allowed any group or individual to object to AgResearch's plans. Or that the authority examined the legal angles and decided there would be no breach of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. Or that strict controls were imposed on AgResearch.

Worst of all, the action pays no heed to the potential benefit of the research. The project aims to use cows as "bioreactors" to produce bulk human proteins in their milk. The proteins would be extracted and used to treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Finding a cure for the debilitating illness has proved elusive. Thus, not only has the research raised fresh hope for sufferers but it offers the prospect of huge reward.

AgResearch may be somewhat guilty of hyperbole in claiming the project is the key to transforming the country's economic base from commodities to "life sciences", including medicines and foods with special health properties. But there is no denying the potential of genetic research in the field of medicine.

This apparently escapes the Mothers Against Genetic Engineering, so dismally dogmatic are their beliefs. They continue to prattle on about the danger of New Zealand losing customers in places opposed to genetic modification and the risk of releasing harmful organisms into the environment. In their world, this country would become an organic farming haven; never mind that a sane and sensible royal commission found this was not a viable notion.

It is to AgResearch's credit that it has hosted a representative of the group at its Ruakura research centre. Like many scientific organisations, it had previously done itself no favours by being secretive about its work. The visit confirmed that the cows are contained by double 2m-high fences, and that entry is electronically monitored. This, however, does not impress the Mothers Against Genetic Engineering. Their obsession about the release of harmful organisms means such security is deemed lax. Specifically, they want the sterilisation of shoes added to the precautions.

Even if such a move were merited, it is a small part of the bigger picture. That involves the potential for genetic modification to make this country more competitive and wealthier, and its people healthier. Already, too much research has been delayed by objections of a largely technical nature. Now, there is the risk of an important project being terminated, or the work continued overseas. Clearly, there are risks in GM research and it must be properly managed. Equally, however, there is a proper forum for objection - and no justification for incessant legal challenges.

© Copyright 2003, New Zealand Herald