Friday, January 14, 2011

GM Chickens to fight Flu, Why Not GM Humans?

I don't mean to be facetious (or maybe I do), but based on yesterday's breaking news out of the UK I was left asking myself, "Why don't we do this to humans if it is such a good idea?!" It is a question of curiosity and accusation, I suppose. In case you haven't heard the news and you are wondering what I am talking about here, let me recap the story before I go on.

Genetic Modification for the Greater Good 
 A team of scientists in the UK have bred the first Genetically Modified chickens specifically engineered to prevent the spread of the avian flu (H5N1). Here is the video from BBC World News that I saw yesterday:

I was immediately intrigued by the idea. I do love science. I am not sure that comes across on this blog enough, but it is true. However, the debate is on: Is this the way to go? Questions begin to swirl and, I imagine, in the weeks and months to come, many will have their own opinions.

Why Not Just Vaccinate?
This was the first question I thought of, I mean, it is what we humans do, so don't we provide ourselves with the best protection available? The answer was staring me in the face, viruses mutate all the time, which is why we are always hoping we have the "right" flu shot for the year ahead. The genetic modification is engineered in such a fashion that the birds will adapt to the mutations and not spread the virus.

How Modified Are These Chickens?
According to those involved in the study, the only difference is in the flu protection.
"Apart from their flu protection, the GM birds are indistinguishable from non- GM chickens of the same breed. Laurence Tilney of Cambridge university said they would be safe to eat.
'The nature of the genetic modification and the decoy molecule makes it extremely unlikely that it could have any negative effects on people consuming the chickens or their eggs,' said Dr Tilney." (Financial Times "GM chickens boost hopes on Avian flu")
When Will These Chickens Be In The Public Market?
This study was released yesterday, January 13, 2011, in The Journal of Science. While it is breaking news, it is fairly early in the implementation phase. Many people have to be given time to absorb the results of the study, raise their own questions and decide which way to move from here.
"Peter Bradnock from the British Poultry Council said the development should spark a new debate on the use of biotechnology. 'The most important thing is that society will have to decide if it wants this kind of technology taken to all farmed animals. We'd need to have this before farmers could think about taking it up,' he said.
'I'm not talking about consumers in Britain. I'm talking about a broader debate, because this technology could have very important implications for global food resources and reducing the environmental footprint of animals. If you're keeping animals then you know they are going to survive and not be afflicted by really debilitating diseases which are endemic in some parts of the world.'"(Farmers Weekly Interactive "Scientists breed first GM chicken")
 In other words, the implications of a successful run in this study could be GM pigs, to save us from swine flu and then on to other animals in an effort to protect us from all disease.

Who Funded The Study?
 According to most sources, the study was funded by an organization known as BBSRC, or "Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council …the UK's leading funding agency for academic research and training in the non-clinical life sciences." They, of course, have their own article about the big news they helped create, on their website. However, also sites that Cobb-Vantress, a major international chicken-breeding company played a part in funding the study and has already stated that they will not fund any future studies after this one. It is suspected that this is due to a fear of public perception.

Will Are Some of the Obstacles to this Becoming A Global Success?
  • Public aversion to GM food
  • This may not be feasible to poorer countries, according to Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the Dutch-speaking Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium ( "Transgenic chickens curb bird flu transmission")
  •  Funding for further study
  • Farmer resitance - here is one quote of many I have found arguing simply for better farming practices: 
"Tim Elsdale, who is an organic farmer in East Sussex, said it was better to adopt good farming practices to avoid animals getting diseases in the first place than to create GM farm animals. 'We don't suffer much from animal diseases on this farm,' he said.
'Organic methods of husbandry doesn't encourage disease if the animals are well spaced enough. They live in a natural environment and they eat normal food then a lot of diseases that are prevalent on conventional farming would not be apparent to us.'" BBC News "World's first flu-resistant GM chicken 'created'")
 What Will The Consumers Think?
Well, there we have it, ladies and gentlemen. In the end, Consumer is King. So, what do YOU think? 
  • At first glance, how do you feel about this GM chicken?
  • What are your reservations?
  • What are the benefits?
  • Do you think you will support the production of GM flu fighting chickens when the time comes?
  • Are you in favor of moving forward to GM swine flu fighting pigs?
  • Do your opinions about these genetically modified chickens differ than your opinions about GM salmon, or other GM food products?
  • If you raise your own chickens, are you hoping to get your hands on some GM chickens for your coop?

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