Altered meat, milk waiting in the wings

Even if the FDA gives consent, will the public go for them?

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Monday, August 11, 2003

One week before he was scheduled to talk to a group of fellow scientists about the commercial potential of biotech livestock, George Seidel Jr. wasn't sure what he would conclude.

Funny thing was, he'd given a talk on the same topic six years before. Back then, in 1997, he spoke optimistically of a dawning "golden age" in gene technology.

But today, as he presents an opening speech at the fourth UC Davis Transgenic Animal Research Conference in Tahoe City, Seidel will acknowledge that his predictions were wrong. Despite 20 years of effort in private and public laboratories around the world and millions of dollars spent, no genetically modified farm animals have made the leap to the marketplace.

"It's just not happened," said Seidel, a professor in the animal reproduction and biotechnology laboratory of Colorado State University. "A question is, why is that true?"

He's not ready to say it never will happen. It's just apparent, he said, that it will take longer than many people once thought.

A zebra fish engineered with jellyfish protein to glow in the dark is being sold as an aquarium pet in Asia -- and reportedly will arrive this summer in the United States. But it's considered more a curiosity than a serious commodity.

An American company in Massachusetts, Aqua Bounty Technologies Inc., has been widely anticipated to be the first to serve consumers genetically modified meat. It makes salmon engineered for speedy growth.

Company President Elliot Entis expressed hopes in an interview with The Bee in 2001 that the fish would be ready for sale in 2002. But today, the company still is in the midst of studies to demonstrate to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that its fish are healthy, safe to eat and won't harm the environment.

As in other "transgenic" animals, the genes of the salmon have been modified with DNA from other life forms. Specifically, Atlantic salmon bear a growth hormone gene from chinook, a different species of salmon. They also carry DNA from another fish, the ocean pout, that switches the gene on and off.

The concept of mixing and matching DNA is familiar and comfortable to the scientists who do it, but for much of the rest of the world, advances in rewriting the code of life are happening much too fast.

Protests in Sacramento this June of a U.S.-sponsored international conference on agricultural technologies showed as much as anything that consumer suspicion of biotechnology is alive and well.

The 925 official attendees of the conference were outnumbered 2-to-1 by activists who converged to decry biotechnology, a potent symbol for them of industrial-style agriculture.

The protesters focused in large part on the potential environmental and health dangers of genetically modified crops; biotech plants have been grown commercially for the better part of 10 years.

The only reason there was little attention to biotech meats is because they're not yet for sale, said Peter Rosset, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, one of many organizations that participated in protest activities.

"I would say the concerns (about biotech food animals) are the same or worse," Rosset said. " ... God knows what we might be drinking in our milk."

Modifying milk is one of the targets of some scientists. They envision milk that produces therapeutic proteins for medicines, and milk that's more nutritious to drink.

Their efforts are moving in fits and starts, and sometimes arrive at what look like dead ends.

One of the most scientifically successful companies in recent years was PPL, the Scottish company that helped produce Dolly the sheep clone. PPL engineered sheep to produce proteins in their milk for making a drug called AAT. AAT, short for alpha-1-antitrypsin, is used to treat certain lung diseases and potentially slow the worsening of cystic fibrosis.

PPL entered a joint venture with Bayer, the German drug company, to develop AAT commercially. Then this summer, Bayer announced the project would go on indefinite hold.

Hundreds of PPL's genetically modified sheep were slaughtered in July. Business analysts said the decision had nothing to do with a failure of science.

"Stunning science does not necessarily make stunning commercial companies," Erling Refsum, an analyst at Nomura International, told The Sunday Times of London.

Far from the volatility of the business world, a team of animal scientists at the University of California, Davis, has been plugging away for more than a decade trying to make milk more nutritious.

Today, they have a small herd of goats that produce in their milk an antimicrobial enzyme called lysozyme, which is naturally found in human tears, saliva and breast milk.

Animal Science Professor James Murray will talk about the team's work at this week's research conference. He said in an interview that the milk killed harmful E. coli bacteria in petri dishes. It also killed a type of bacteria that's responsible for spoiling milk. That suggests, Murray said, that the lysozyme-containing milk would have a longer shelf life.

In a second biotech project, the team has created goats whose milk has a higher share of monounsaturated, or "good" fats, and a smaller share of saturated, or "bad" fats, than milk from conventional goats.

"I'm very excited," said Murray. " ... It's a way of extending the versatility and utility of a product."

Murray said he hasn't yet discussed the change formally with dairy goat ranchers. "I don't know if they'll be interested or horrified. It'll be a bit of both, actually," he said.

Sure enough, Betty McCorkle, president of the Family Goat Association in Oroville, had a mixed reaction when asked for her thoughts.

"I am concerned about some of the possible fallout from gene-splicing, but (I) have an open mind about such things," she said.

Murray said the university is pursuing patents on the engineered goats and plans to apply to the FDA this fall for permission to run milk taste tests, make cheese and yogurt with the milk and feed the milk to conventional goats and pigs.

As a sign of the FDA's high interest in animal biotechnology, the agency is sending 12 scientists to the Tahoe City conference. The meeting is expected to bring together a total of 120 people from all around the world, including China, Korea, Denmark, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada.

"One of the very attractive things about this meeting is that it is relatively small, and there is a lot of opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas," said Rae Jones, an FDA spokeswoman. "We look forward to being able to see what's coming up on the horizon."


About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.