|Scientists condemn new gene technique
London Observer 11/24/02: Antony Barnett and Robin McKie
Original Link: http://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,846528,00.html
Researchers have developed a technique to speed evolution by inserting human cancer-causing genes into animals and plants.
Hundreds of mutant breeds - which would normally take nature millennia to produce - could be developed in months by the method, known as hypermutability.
But the technique - designed to improve production of new animal and crop breeds - has shocked many scientists and environmentalists. Some say the process could result in organisms with human cancer-causing genes being released into the environment. Others worry that attempts to accelerate evolution could be dangerous.
However, its creator, the US-based company Morphotek, says it could be valuable to drug and agriculture companies, making it possible to isolate highly profitable breeds, drought-resistant plants or milk-rich cows.
Details of the method were passed to The Observer last week by a senior British researcher working for one of Europe's largest biotech corporations. Although a keen supporter of GM technology, the scientist was dismayed to learn about Morphotek's plans after its directors launched a sales tour of Europe.
'I was completely shocked,' he said. 'What would happen if an organism containing such a dangerous gene escaped? What if a gene got into the food chain? Some people could suffer fatal reactions.'
The method involves the isolation of a gene involved in repairing DNA. Some people inherit a version called PMS2-134, which is defective, and become prone to colon cancer.
Putting this gene into animals, plants and bacteria will destabilise their DNA and cause them to create many more mutant offspring than normal. Most mutations will die out, but a greater than usual number will survive, the company says. Thus the rate of creating new plants that can resist disease or animals that can metabolise food more effectively will be increased.
'You can see the logic _ but it's like sitting a monkey at a typewriter and hoping it will write Hamlet one day. It isn't worth the risks,' GM expert Les Firbank of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology said. His point was backed by geneticist Michael Antoniou, of King's College London. 'It would be cruel to animals and potentially dangerous,' he said.
Friends of the Earth food campaigner Pete Riley said: 'It is amazing this technology has progressed so far in the US without being challenged.'
But Nicholas Nicolaides, chief executive of Morphotek, said the work was safe. When a mutant breed with commercial opportunity was found, it would be simple to breed out the cancer-causing gene, he said, adding: 'We are not using animals for this process at this time, just mammalian cells.'