From Bio Journal - January 2003

De facto suspension of GM rice "Matsuribare" R&D

On Nov. 17, 2002, 600 people gathered in Nagoya, the capital of Aichi Prefecture, from all over Japan to attend the 2nd Stop! GM Rice National Assembly in order to halt research and development of the GM rice "Matsuribare". The next day, representatives from the Assembly visited Aichi Pref. Agricultural Research Centre and met with officials there. The Assembly presented an additional 257,730 signatures to Aichi Pref., bringing the total number of signatures handed over to the Prefecture to 580,830 since July 2002. (See previous article, September 2002

On Dec. 5, 2002, at its December Congress in Aichi Pref., it became clear that Aichi would end the GM rice Matsuribare project in collaboration with Monsanto. This was surely an achievement brought about through the efforts taken by citizens in Japan organizing meetings, gatherings and collecting a large number of signatures.

At the Congress, the director of Aichi's Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Mr Takeshi Onodera, in an answer to a question about GM rice asked by a prefecture assembly member, Ms Tomomi Nakamura, stated that 1) Aichi Pre. had decided not to continue its GM rice research collaboration with Monsanto, which its Agricultural Research Centre has been conducting over the past 6 years. Aichi is satisfied to recognize that it is possible to develop a herbicide resistance genetically modified rice. The project will therefore be ended in March, 2003. 2) Aichi Pref. has also decided not to apply to MHLW for commercialisation of its GM rice Matsuribare, respecting the views of many consumers concerning feelings of insecurity and anxiety.

On Dec. 12, 2002, Monsanto also announced informally that it would abandon GM rice. Thus, the development of the GM rice Matsuribare has been de facto blocked in Japan.

MHWL announces continuation of gene therapy treatments

As noted in the previous issue, Dec. 2002 (not translated into English), it has been found in France that there are side-effects from the gene therapy for X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (XSCID or X-SCID) which uses a retrovirus vector. A review of this and similar treatments is now underway in France and Germany. In Japan, Tohoku University's plan to implement the treatment has been put on hold. Conversely, the MHLW has announced it's view that it will not prevent the implementation of gene therapy treatments. (Nikkei Biotech, 4th Nov. 2002)

Genetic samples taken from Fukuoka Prefecture residents

Kyushu University, in partnership with Hisayama Town, Fukuoka Prefecture, has begun a project to take blood samples from the town residents. Genetic material will be isolated from the blood samples and sequenced. Kyushu University Hisayama Town Laboratory says that genetic material from all town residents over 40 will be taken and checked against health records in order to uncover genes for illnesses. They say they have received consent from 3,000 residents so far.

A similar project in Iceland, where the total population are the subjects, is currently underway. It is possible that there will be more cases like this one in Hisayama Town in Japan in the future.

Biotechnology Strategy Council complete draft guidelines

The Biotechnology Strategy Council held its fourth meeting on November 26, 2002 and finalized the draft of the Biotechnology Strategy Guidelines. The draft guidelines were based on the interim report, as reported in the previous issue (December 2002). The official guidelines are due to be published by March 2003. Further, the BT (biotechnology) R&D project team set up within the Cabinet Office's Council for Science and Technology Policy Expert Panel on Promotion Strategy of Prioritized Areas also completed a report on the promotion of BT R&D on 20th November, 2002. Taking its cue from the draft guidelines, the report focuses on the direction of biotechnological R&D and so on. These publications hint at the likely acceleration of biotechnological development in Japan in the near future.

MHLW approves sampling of cells from deceased fetuses

A meeting of the specialist sub-committee (under the MHLW's Health Sciences Council) considering clinical research using human stem cells on 15th November, 2002 approved the sampling of cells from deceased fetuses resulting from abortions, and decided to include this in the guidelines (see article in previous issue, Dec. 2002). Just exactly how the clause will be written and included in the guidelines was left to a future meeting. However, all that is being considered here is the sampling of cells in clinical research, the sampling of cells in basic research effectively being free of any regulations whatsoever. The meeting avoided discussion of the fundamental question of how aborted fetuses should be handled, preferring to simply determine the conditions under which they should be utilized for clinical research. One could probably be forgiven for thinking that this exercise is being carried out in order to prepare the legal ground for those who wish to utilize materials from deceased fetuses.

Unsatisfactory reply over the unapproved cultivation of GE corn at Tsukuba U.

An unapproved cultivation of Event 176 GE corn is now known to have taken place at a field of the Tsukuba University Genetic Research Center in November 2002 (see previous issue, Dec. 2002). Local citizens' groups submitted a questionnaire to the Center to inquire about the incident. On 3rd December, 2002 members of the citizens' groups visited the Tsukuba University administration offices to hear the university's reply. The vice-president of the university, Hideaki Takagi, explained that the incident took place because the professor of the biological sciences faculty, Prof. Hiroshi Kamata, "was under the under the mistaken impression that approval had been given" for the planting. Takagi said that in future the university's internal checking system would be strengthened. However, that Kamata, who serves on the MEXT specialist committee for genetic engineering, should make a simple slip like cultivating unapproved seed defies the imagination and is unsatisfactory as an explanation of the incident. If we are to believe this explanation, then surely it must be problematic that such a person should be serving on one of Japan's specialist committees.

MEXT finally approves Shinshu U. Program

On December 3rd, 2002, the 13th meeting of the specialist committee on research into embryos and human ES cells (a consultative body of MEXT under the Council for Science and Technology) took place, and Shinshu University Faculty of Medicine's re-re-submitted application for its program concerning the use of human ES cells was finally approved (see Nov. 2002 issue). The program involves the production of heart muscle tissue and liver cells using human ES cells imported from the American company, Wicell Research Institute. Consideration of the program application had continued at MEXT for nearly a year since the application was first submitted on 6th December. 2001. During that time the committee required the university to rewrite the application twice. What has become apparent by the approval this time is that MEXT never intended to reject the application for the proposed program. If there was some problem with the application, it could be pointed out and sent back for re-application, finally reaching approval through this process. This is the kind of review that takes place when researchers want approval for a program using human ES cells, which have to be produced by destroying an embryo.

Closeup: CBIC one year anniversary symposium

On Nov. 30, 2002, CBIC held its one year anniversary symposium at Meiji University in Ochanomizu, Tokyo. 150 people attended this symposium entitled "How far have GMO polluted the world?". Consumers Union of Japan's Ms Mizuhara opened the symposium and was followed by Mr Amagasa from CBIC. Dr Kawata from Nagoya University and Dr Hyoji Namai made speeches on the matter of genetic pollution from different perspectives. This successful symposium concluded with an impassioned discussion between the speakers and participants.

Closeup: Prediction concerning increasing genetic pollution

- By Dr Masaharu Kawata (Assistant Professor, School of Science, Nagoya University, Japan)

Dr Kawata reported on several genetic pollution cases which have occurred due to GM crop farming over the past 3 years: 1) The StarLink case, 2) The GM maize case of pollution of the Mexican traditional maize, 3) The bio-pharmaceutical ("pharming") contaminated food crops, 4) Super-weed tolerance of herbicide. He also explained how Monsanto had sued conventional farmers in Canada. After recognizing all these serious cases in the world, we have also learnt that an unapproved GM corn variety has been cultivated in Tsukuba, Japan (see article above), without obtaining permission for cultivation. Dr Kawata pointed out the possibility of an increasing number of genetic pollution cases caused by unapproved GM crops field trials becoming an enormous issue in the coming years. Moreover, Dr Kawata emphasized Japan's loose regulation of GMOs, the considerable problem of countries with no regulations, such as African countries and Latin American countries, and the matter of smuggling and unintended cultivation that could cause widespread genetic pollution. Dr Kawata also mentioned that the farmers' right to save seeds is threatened by GM crop cultivation.

Closeup: Envisioned gene flow by pollen pollution from GM crop cultivation

- By Dr Hyoji Namai (former professor of Tsukuba University and an expert on botanical genetics)

Dr Namai started his speech with a very humorous and ingenious story, his original "theory of chin and cheek". The human face has both a chin and cheeks, but there is no clear border between the two. In this manner, every natural life form is continuous and variable. For example, entomophilous (insect pollinated) plants could possibly be pollinated by pollen in the air. So there are no clear differences between entomophilous plants and anemophilous (wind pollinated) plants. The same thing can be said for autogamous (self-pollinated) plants and allogamous (cross-pollinated) plants. Therefore, to genetically modify an entomophilous plant without careful consideration might cause cross-pollination, and lead to genetic pollution at high rates. He concluded his speech by saying: "The theory of chin and cheek criticises contemporary science, which wants to treat each part separately." Dr Namai's conclusion was that genetic pollution is an unavoidable natural phenomena.

(English Index)