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Monday, October 4, 1999 Published at 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK


GM safety research stokes new row

The research triggered a scare over GM food safety

The controversial research which sparked the furore over the safety of genetically-modified (GM) foods is to be published in a prestigious medical journal.

Dr Arpad Pusztai: "The scientific establishment will not accept this."
Dr Arpad Pusztai claimed his research showed that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered ill effects but his work was savagely attacked by the scientific establishment.

Now the Lancet is to publish some of the work, leading supporters of Dr Pusztai to claim he has been vindicated. All prominent journals insist that research is thoroughly checked by other scientists. Successful "peer review" is seen by the scientific community as the hallmark of excellent research.

Immediate criticism

However, the BBC understands that the paper does not confirm that the GM potatoes stunted the growth of rats. It does say the stomach lining of rats fed on GM potatoes are worse than those fed on a normal diet.

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh: "It's emerged that Dr Pusztai's work will be published in The Lancet"
The authors admit that this may not necessarily be because the potatos were genetically modified - it could be due to other differences in the potato.

And scientists at the UK's Royal Society, who in May 1999 said Dr Pusztai's work was "flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis," have also dismissed the latest work. They told the BBC that once again the research was not properly carried out.

Code violation

Dr Pusztai came under fire in August 1998 when he made public his research, before it had been peer-reviewed. He claimed that the GM potatoes not only damaged rats' stomachs but also weakened their immune systems and stunted their growth.

[ image: Dr Pusztai: Findings were deemed misleading]
Dr Pusztai: Findings were deemed misleading
He said he would not eat GM food after seeing the results of his tests.

Days after making his comments, Dr Pusztai was suspended and eventually retired from his post after his bosses deemed his findings "misleading". The UK Government's chief scientific adviser accused him of violating "every canon of scientific rectitude".

Severe scrutiny

Normally, two independent scientists review a research paper, but Dr Pusztai says six reviewers were used by the Lancet.

"It is not important that I am vindicated but that the issue of testing has become respectable again," Dr Pusztai told the BBC. "The government might now be forced to carry out rigorous testing.

"I've been doing this type of study with non-GM items for 20 years and I've had over 40 papers published in reputable journals. These are credible strategies, the only new thing is the GM component."

Dr Vyvyan Howard: Good news that research will be published
One of the scientists who supported Dr Pusztai amid the public row was Dr Vyvyan Howard, a toxico-pathologist at Liverpool University.

He told the BBC that the forthcoming publication of the research "highlights the fact that this technology is unpredictable".

In the light of the research, he said he would like to see GM crops tested to the same level as pharmaceuticals. "That will actually lay many fears to rest," he said.

The development was seized upon by leading anti-GM campaigners. Pete Riley, Food Campaigner at Friends of the Earth said: "We are delighted that Dr Pusztai's work on GM food will finally be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. All the politicians, officials and scientists who tried to rubbish Dr Pusztai and his work owe him a sincere and public apology."

Government defence

But a spokesman for the government's GM Foods Unit said that publication of the research is "in line with the Royal Society's recommendation, with which the government totally concurs. Research scientists should subject their findings to peer review before release into the public domain."

The Lancet paper is believed to be an examination of the rats' stomach linings by Dr Stanley Ewen, a pathologist at Aberdeen University.

He claims these were thickened and inflamed in the rats, which ate the GM potatoes but not in control rats.

Food under the microscope
The GM potatoes had been engineered to produce a lectin insecticide. The control rats were fed potatoes simply spiked with the lectin. This suggests that the GM process itself was responsible for the changes in the rats.

Dr Ewen has said that a fragment of DNA commonly used to switch genes on and off could be to blame.

But even if the rats are shown to have suffered ill-effects from the GM potatoes, the argument is far from over. Some scientists still have serious misgivings over the use of raw potatoes, which ordinarily contain numerous toxic compounds, and also over how the control experiments were conducted.

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