October 9, 2002, Wednesday
Waikato Times (Hamilton)
Most cows can be reached by opening a farm gate but at AgResearch near Hamilton, some special cows are protected by a complex security system. Sid Pickering reports.
NEW Zealand's most heavily guarded cows are alive and well and living in luxury just outside of Hamilton.
The four friesians, born last year as part of research to find a cure for multiple sclerosis, are given care a farm cow could only dream about. "They're spoilt rotten," says Peter Moore, AgResearch's national manager of farms and abattoirs and responsible for the cows' security.
"They've been hand raised so they're very tame. Walk in there and they're liable to lick you to death."
But walking into the secure 45.5 ha of paddocks where the cows live is the hardest part of any visit to AgResearch.
They are protected by a security system more suited to a prison.
Once you have security clearance from Mr Moore, you have to get through a computerised gate controlled by swipe card.
Records of each swipe, saying who went in and when, are kept in a central computer.
Go through that gate and you are one step closer to the cows, but still surrounded by gravel in another secure compound.
To get to the paddocks from there you have to walk through a building with a door controlled by a regularly changing keypad code, or go through another computerised gate.
The whole time a camera perched high above the first gate watches and records your every move.
The high security is not surprising -- GM cows are potentially worth millions.
Scientists at the Crown research institute have bred them to carry genes from a mammal which they say already shares 80 per cent of its DNA.
The problem most opponents have with that is simple -- the other mammal is human.
Now AgResearch has won permission to widen the scope of its work. Scientists will be rearing up to 200 cows with the genes from humans, goats, deer, mice and sheep.
As well as multiple sclerosis, they'll be looking for cures to other diseases. They also want to perfect the process of transferring different genes into cows.
Leading the research team, Dr Goetz Laible is relaxed about the use of human genes.
"We get our human genes from a database in the United States. We are careful to get the consent of the person whose DNA we might use."
Not much is known about the gene scientists who spend their days working with the building blocks of life. They are afraid that if the public knows too much about them they will become the targets of anti-GM radicals.
A grim precedent was set last year when the scientist in charge of the last GM cow project, Dr Phil L'Huillier, had his house graffitied , and a Molotov cocktail was lobbed over AgResearch's fence.
Dr Laible agrees to being photographed but only after some unease.
"At the end of the day, that's my name on the research paper. I just don't want to push my picture in people's faces."
One minute's drive from the secure GM cow paddocks, is the lab where the scientists get down to the business of genetically engineering cow cells.
There is no operating table in the middle of the room, no bubbling beakers line the walls. The only thing that sets the small fluoro-lit rooms apart from any other sterile lab are large boxlike machines used to store and grow cells.
Dr Laible opens one of the machines. Inside is a petri dish holding a red gel and shiny multi-coloured blobs.
The cells represent the first part of the seven-and-a-half year research plan, which might turn AgResearch into a world leader in gene science.
But that's all in the future, the hardest part of Dr Laible's job is already over.
"People don't realise the amount of work it takes putting in an application
to do this research. Now that process is over, we can concentrate on the
© Copyright 2002 Independent Publishers Ltd