May 15, 2002
The Guardian - United Kingdom
BY JOHN VIDAL
British scientists are genetically modifying and cloning hundreds of thousands of animals a year with little health or commercial advantage, according to a report by the genetics monitoring group GeneWatch.
The great majority of the 582,000 animals genetically altered in Britain in 2000 for medical or agricultural research were mice, but increasingly sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, rabbits, birds, poultry and cats are being used.
The scale of the genetic experimentation on animals was previously unknown and shocked the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups.
But the report, which drew on peer-reviewed scientific studies and patent applications made by companies, was condemned by leading scientists as "irresponsible".
The report, which covers the development of GM animal technologies worldwide, says that many experiments are highly inefficient, wasteful of animal lives and frequently involve suffering. "Abortion, premature death and infertility are regular side-effects of these genetic technologies," it says.
"The extent of animal suffering and the reasons for it are being hidden from public scrutiny and debate", said Dr Sue Mayer, one of the report's authors who also sits on the government's agriculture and biotechnology committee, which oversees biotechnology development.
Of more than 10,000 attempts at animal cloning worldwide so far, says the report, there have been only 124 live births and just 65 animals have reached maturity. Many of these showed serious physical defects. In one peer-reviewed study of 40 cloned calves, 34 showed prenatal abnormalities, several had limb deformities, and most were described as very slow or weak. In another study of 80 GM lambs transferred to surrogate mothers, all but three died inside 12 weeks with abnormal kidneys, brains or livers.
GM experiments and the cloning of animals have increased by 800% in the past 10 years and now include attempts in the US to clone pets and endangered animals. The majority of experiments, however, are aimed at developing pharmaceutical proteins from transgenic animals to counter multiple sclerosis, infant diseases, hepatitis, and blood and growth disorders.
So far, says the report, at least 29 human therapeutic proteins have been produced in transgenic animals, most in milk, but some in blood, urine or sperm. While the companies argue that this could make drug production for diseases such as diabetes cheap and readily available, GeneWatch questions whether it is necessary to perform experiments on so many animals.
"The use of GM animals in medical research must undergo a complete review as the science does not support the vast abuse of animals that is taking place," says the report.
"These experiments should only be undertaken when there is no reasonable al ternative. Balancing the needs of people for drugs with the welfare and integrity of animal species is a complex ethical dilemma."
Other animals, especially pigs, are being genetically modified to try to produce whole organs for humans in xenotransplantation experiments. Because of the huge gap between the numbers of organs needed and those available, this branch of genetic manipulation has attracted millions of pounds of investment, but has had little commercial or scientific success so far. Eight companies, including two in Britain, are working on GM pigs to develop livers, kidneys, hearts and pancreas.
Yesterday the Roslin Institute, which developed Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal, was highly critical of sections of the report. "All experiments on animals need to be justified on a case by case basis. GM animals will be increasingly important to advancing medical knowledge, the testing of new drugs and to the production of treatments for cancer and other diseases at a price society can afford," said Dr Harry Griffin, assistant director of the institute.
"For GeneWatch to condemn a whole technology based on a few selected examples is irresponsible and a gross disservice to the patients who will benefit directly or indirectly in the future."
But he said that he agreed with GeneWatch when it criticised the development of cloned pets or endangered species. "That is a nonsense, and not a sensible way forward for the technology."
Dr Griffin also questioned the other major strand of GM animal research, which is trying to develop increased food production. "It is very premature to introduce cloning into agriculture and we need to look at improved success rates," he said.
GeneWatch also says that governments and academic laboratories are developing GM animals with increased agricultural productivity or disease resistance. Genes coding for human growth hormones and vital proteins have been inserted into a variety of animals.
The report says: "They have displayed enhanced growth, an increased meat/fat ratio and increased efficiency of feed conversion but there have been high costs to the animals, including gastric ulcers, liver and kidney damage, degenerative joint diseases, lameness, lethargy and damaged vision."
Two types of sheep are now being developed for increased wool production but peer-reviewed scientific papers suggested that the small increases (6%) in production in year one were not repeated later.
But other scientists reacted strongly. Dr Mark Matfield, director of the Research Defence Society, which represents UK scientists in the debate about use of animals in medical research, said: "GM animals are proving crucial in the understanding of many serious and fatal diseases from cancer to cystic fibrosis and motor neurone disease. Scientists take their responsibilities towards all laboratory animals, including those that are genetically modified, very seriously."
GeneWatch called for an independent inquiry into the use of GM and cloned animals in medical research, an end to secrecy surrounding such experiments and tighter regulations to prevent their use in agriculture, as pets, for drug production or as organ donors.
"Scientists are getting carried away with gene hype and animals are suffering. There is simply no justification for the genetic modification and cloning of animals for use in agriculture, as drug factories or for organ production," said Dr Mayer.
From milk to body organs - and armour
Goats US biotech company Nexia has inserted a spider's gene into a goat to produce dragline silk, one of the strongest materials in the world. The company has dubbed it "Bio steel" and is working with the Canadian military to produce body armour. There are no published reports on the health of the GM goats
Sheep US and New Zealand researchers are developing GM sheep to increase their wool production by introducing bacterial genes into the animals that would allow them to directly produce more cysteine, the limiting factor in the rate of wool growth. However, there have been serious losses of animals, and little evidence yet of increased production
Cows The US dairy industry is working on three proposals to genetically modify cows to produce different sorts of milk. One would increase the anti-bacterial properties of milk to allow children with specific diseases to consume it, another would increase the protein content of milk, which industry believes would boost cheese production, and a third would make milk more palatable to the 70% of the world's population who have some degree of lactose intolerance. However, GM milk is not close to commercial reality, there have been heavy losses of animals and it is doubtful whether consumers would accept it
Pigs are the most popular animal for the potential growing of organs suitable for humans because their hearts, pancreases and livers are roughly the same size. But the technology is proving more complicated than originally thought and, despite the tens of millions of dollars already invested, Genewatch says that the prospects for animal-to-human whole organ transplants remain "extremely remote". Meanwhile, many researchers are trying to speed up and increase pig meat production, so far with some success but at terrible cost in deformities and illnesses to the animals. Canadian researchers are genetically modifying pigs to try to reduce their natural production of phosphates and nitrates, which pollute water courses
Chickens, rabbits and quails are all being modified in the hope they can produce drugs for the treatment of hepatitis, anaemia, cancers and blood disorders. The global meat industry is also hoping that GM poultry can be developed, but the rate of transgenesis is thought to be very low. In one study, 2,599 eggs were injected but only a tiny proportion proved transgenic
Special report at http://www.guardian.co.uk/genes
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