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Friday, October 15, 1999 Published at 14:13 GMT 15:13 UK


GM controversy intensifies

Dr Pusztai sees the publication as vindication

The scientific research that was largely responsible for sparking the intense debate in the UK over the safety of genetically-modified (GM) foods has finally been published, alongside new work showing possible effects on human health.

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh: "The Lancet has put the research under the full glare of scientific scrutiny"
The leading medical journal The Lancet has gone ahead and printed details of the experiments conducted by Dr Arpad Pusztai and Dr Stanley Ewen, despite objections from some of its own advisers who say the work is deeply flawed.

But the journal's editor, Dr Richard Horton, has justified the publication. He argues that, after the BSE crisis, the public is suspicious of the safety reassurances they get from scientists and are demanding a more open debate on GM technology.

Dr Árpád Pusztai: Publication justifies research
Dr Pusztai told the BBC: "For me the important thing is that it makes the whole thing respectable again. I hope it will be a push in the right direction. We are still just talking, but [GM foods] need to be tested."

But Dr Horton insisted: "This is absolutely not a vindication of Dr Pusztai's claims. But we can now draw a line under the phoney debate we have had for the last year."

Richard Horton and Professor Patrick Bateson on where the GM debate is now
A leading critic of both Dr Pusztai's work and its publication in the Lancet has been the UK's Royal Society. Their Professor Patrick Bateson told the BBC: "We are no further forward than before the work was done."

Charles Secrett, executive director of anti-GM campaigners Friends of the Earth said: "We think the publication of the work in the Lancet is very important indeed. There is no scientific consensus about the safety of GM food. The government should stop all GM trials and take the precautionary approach - it is better to be safe than sorry."

The UK Government's response to the publication of Dr Pusztai's work and another paper in the Lancet relating to the safety of GM foods came from the Cabinet Office: "It acknowledges that further studies need to be carried out in this area."

Caroline Bolton Smith and Charles Secrett assess the new work
The new GM research in The Lancet comes from scientists at the Scottish Crop Research Institute and Nutrition Research Group in Dundee, UK.

They report that snowdrop protein binds strongly to a human white blood cell protein. The protein increases potato plants' resistance to attacks by insects and worms and has been used in GM experiments.

One of the team Dr Caroline Bolton Smith told the BBC: "It's too early to say if there are any health implications." If there were, they could be serious, she said, potentially affecting the immune system and foetal development.

[ image: The potatoes contained a gene from the snowdrop]
The potatoes contained a gene from the snowdrop
"If these proteins are to be used in GM food, there needs to be a lot more work," she added.

The research by Dr Pusztai and Dr Ewen involved feeding rats on potatoes that had been genetically modified to produce the snowdrop protein (lectin). In their Lancet Research Letter, they say they found cell damage in the rats' stomachs, and in parts of their intestines.

Other rats were fed potatoes simply spiked with the lectin and because these animals did not suffer the same ill-effects, the two Aberdeen researchers believe the GM device used to carry the new gene into the potatoes may be the source of the problem.

[ image: Detractors say too few animals were used]
Detractors say too few animals were used
As well as Dr Horton's own editorial, The Lancet carries a commentary from Harry Kuiper and colleagues from the Netherlands State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products.

They attack the research. They write that "the experiments...were incomplete, included too few animals per diet group, and lacked controls...the results are difficult to interpret and do not allow the conclusion that the genetic modification of potatoes accounts for adverse effects in animals."

The Lancet asked six advisers to "peer-review" the work. Although there was an acceptance that the data were flawed, the journal says a "majority" of the advisors were still in favour of publication.

Richard Horton quotes one who says: "I would like to see [this work] published in the public domain so that fellow scientists can judge for themselves...if the paper is not published, it will be claimed there is a conspiracy to suppress information".

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Internet Links

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Árpád Pusztai's homepage

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