Monday, June 26, 2006

Milk It

Dr. Henry I. Miller at TCS Daily is, as ever, keeping an eye on advances in medicine and agriculture, and pointing to a potentially life-saving treatment coming out of biopharming--and the inevitable objections coming out of the woodwork. According to Miller, two million children a year die in the developing world due to diarrhea, which presents little real threat to people in more advanced countries, but is a serious danger in places without ready access to the clean water and the many medical advantages that most of us with easy access to the Internet enjoy. Moreover, this illness, which can lead to death by dehydration, can also become chronic, with damage to the digestive system making victims more vulnerable to further attacks, leading to malnutrition and anemia, among other conditions. However, this scourge can be lessened in duration and intensity by an innovative twist on nature developed by a California company called Ventria Bioscience, and pursued in cooperation with "...researchers at the University of California, Davis, and at a leading children's hospital and a nutrition institute in Lima, Peru." The twist is the introduction of two human proteins into rice, which is then used to produce an oral rehydration solution.

Oral hydration as a treatment for diarrhea is nothing new. In fact, Miller says that an orally administered glucose-based, high sodium liquid has become, "the standard of care for childhood diarrhea in the developing world," and has saved countless lives. He points out, though, that this treatment does nothing to address the problem of shortening the length of illness, nor reduce its severity. That's where the modified rice comes in. You might ask what adding human proteins to a hydration solution could do to put the clamps on a bout of the revenge. Miller explains that these proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, are present in breast milk, and breastfed children, "...get sick with diarrhea and other infections less often than those fed with formula. " Lysozyme has an anti-microbial effect, and lactoferrin "...promotes repair of the cells of the intestinal mucosa damaged by diarrhea," thus reducing recurrence.

So, the proteins help heal kids quicker, and have the long term effect of making them more resistant to future infection. I guess this could make one draw the conclusion that children should be weaned at high school graduation, but this is hardly practical, eh? What Ventria has done is make the protein easy to incorporate into an oral treatment solution:

What makes this approach feasible is Ventria's invention of a method to produce human lactoferrin and lysozyme in genetically modified rice, a process dubbed "biopharming." This is an inexpensive and ingenious way to synthesize the huge quantities of the proteins that will be necessary. (In effect, the rice plants' inputs are carbon dioxide, water and the sun's energy.)
If the proteins are grown in the rice, which is then used to grow more rice, a lot of the chemistry is done up front, with the rest being a matter of farming. The rice is then used as the base for the hydrating solution--another example where scientists are basically "growing medicine". This is where the objections are raised. Opponents cite fears that the modified rice will contaminate other rice fields, cross-pollinating and spreading the modification. Miller points out, however, that because rice is self-pollinating, this is unlikely, but even if it were to happen, it's hard to conceive of actual danger, because the proteins in question are already in us anyway, not just in breast milk, but in our tears and saliva as well. It's interesting to note that the people objecting, at least the ones Miller references, are mostly rival rice producers. It looks to me like that might be more fear of competition than a real concern about the dangers of modified rice. I don't mean to belittle legitimate concerns about biopharming, and the need for caution and safeguards, but, at least judging by Miller's article, the objections seem weak in this case.

I continue to be amazed at the ways that scientific ingenuity is taking the blocks that God created and building with them. I suspect there are limits beyond which God will not let us pass, but who knows where those limits are? Until we find out for sure, I'm getting more and more comfortable with the notion that searching for answers to the common problems that plague mankind, by utilizing the elements He used in our creation, is a good use of resources, and part of the stewardship with which He entrusted us. I don't want to see people start to tinker with other people, but rice? Grow forth and multiply.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently no one has considered the true danger of these modified rice fields - constipated rice rats