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An AIDS vaccine in your cereal? It could really happen

KATU News | December 14 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. - An AIDS vaccine in a breakfast cereal?
It could happen. But a group of doctors and others don't want it happening in Oregon - at least not yet.

They will ask the Legislature next month to impose a four-year moratorium on biopharming, crops genetically altered to fight or prevent human diseases.

The state chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility is concerned that such crops would infiltrate the environment, exposing residents to drugs they don't need.

Biopharming represents the latest twist on genetic modification in agriculture. Biotechnology companies already have produced corn varieties containing a protein found in HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Their goal is to manufacture food products, such as breakfast cereals, to orally deliver an AIDS vaccine.

Various transgenic seed projects under development and expected to be available commercially in the next few years include producing a topical gel that prevents the spread of herpes simplex virus and oral vaccines against hepatitis B and E. coli.

Rick North, project director of the nonprofit group's Campaign for Safe Food, said biopharming threatens to expose the public to microscopic levels of medicines drifting through the air.

"I want to take a drug when I have a need for it," he said. "I don't want to be exposed to it without knowledge of what it does and what its side effects are."

Oregon currently has no biopharmaceutical crops permitted for cultivation. But North said the physicians group, which numbers about 850 and includes nondoctors, wants to ensure that state residents don't risk allergic reaction from pharmaceuticals if conventional crops become contaminated by modified genes in the future.

A coalition of farming, forest and chemical-company interests will oppose the bill. Salem-based Oregonians for Food and Shelter helped raise $5.5 million in 2002 to defeat a state measure that would have required the labeling of genetically modified food products.

Terry Witt, Oregonians for Food and Shelter's executive director, said the bill proposed by the physicians group is overly broad and would bar Oregon from research opportunities.

"I don't think the biopharming arena will ever amount to a real windfall for Oregon farmers, but the major concern I have here is banning the technology without ever considering the details of what might be proposed," he said.