From Bio Journal - August 2004

Trend: Serious GM canola pollution in Kashima port, Ibaraki Prefecture

Recent revelations show that imported GM canola seeds have been spilled around Kashima port in Ibaraki prefecture, and that the GM canola pollution has been spreading. The Japan Wildlife Research Centre and others have established 13 checking points near busy crossroads within a 5 kilometre radius of the port, at 3-5 points and at distances 50 metres times the width of the sidewalk. The tests were conducted for 2 years at a total of 48 locations.

According to the MAFF announcement on 29 June 2004, a May 2002 investigation revealed that western oil seed rape has been growing wild at 25 of 48 locations. 15 cases out of 16 were confirmed to be imported canola, the one exception not being analysable. Moreover, 7 out of 20 seeds and 2 out of 7 plants were shown to be GM varieties.

According to an investigation in February, 2003, western oil seed rape was confirmed at 23 out of 48 locations (2 locations were different from the previous year). There was possible GM canola reseeding at 17 out of 23 confirmed locations. Consequently, the investigation will continue due to difficulties involved with identification.

Currently, the Ministry of Environment is also investigating the case. Presumably, the GM canola pollution is spreading throughout the Kanto district, and GM plants are possibly growing wild around other unloading ports, such as Kobe port. MAFF said that it was assumed that a situation like this would occur, so it is not an issue.

GM blue rose by Suntory & Florigene

On 30 June 2004, Suntory Ltd. announced that in collaboration with an Australian company called Florigene, they had developed a GM blue rose by inserting a gene from pansy (flavonoid 3'5' hydroxylase gene). Their GM blue carnation with a gene from petunia has already been on the market (see BJ February 2004), but they were not able to make a blue rose by using the same gene. Currently, they are researching the GM blue rose in a closed lab. The environmental risk assessment will start soon with a view to putting the product on sale in 2007-8.

Current situation concerning GM wheat

On 21 June 2004, Monsanto withdrew its GM wheat applications from all countries except the US. This means the development of Monsanto's GM wheat has virtually come to an end. However, GM wheat development is not yet over. GM wheat R&D is still being carried out by other corporations and universities (see Table 1). Among those competing in the field, Syngenta Seeds is the first player to enter the game with its fusarium fungus resistant GM wheat. In North Dakota, US, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Agriculture Department has started to develop a GM wheat with altered storage protein characteristics.

Table 1: Current situation on GM wheat R&D
Syngenta Seeds (Switzerland)Fusarium fungus resistant GM wheat
Biogemma (France)GM wheat with modified starch metabolism
Montana University (US)GM wheat with modified bread-making traits
Montana University (US)High yield GM wheat
Macquarie University (Australia)High temperature stress resistant GM wheat
Idaho University (US)Barley yellow dwarf virus resistant GM wheat
Gerten (US)Protein reformulated GM wheat
Kansas University (US)Dryness resistant GM wheat
Ventria Bioscience (US)GM wheat with improved digestive characteristics
ARS (US)GM wheat with altered storage protein
BASF Canada (Germany)Herbicide resistant GM wheat
Monsanto (US)Herbicide resistant GM wheat

Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology panel grants first approval for preimplantation diagnosis

On 18 June 2004, an investigative panel into preimplantation diagnosis under the ethics committee of the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology granted approval for one of two submissions to carry out preimplantation diagnosis. The panel's decision will be passed on to the ethics committee for further deliberation. In "preimplantation diagnosis," one cell taken from an externally fertilized ovum is diagnosed. The ovum is returned to the uterus if no genetic abnormalities are found.

In October 1998, the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology released a paper which expressed the view that preimplantation diagnosis be allowed, but only in cases where it was necessary to screen for "a serious genetic disease". However, many oppose the use of the technique because it could lead to the "selection of life," and so no cases have been allowed thus far. The case that has been approved this time is for screening for Duchenne muscular dystrophy by Keio University, the submission being rejected being screening for mytonic dystrophy by Nagoya City University. (see BJ November 2003) Although both diseases are kinds of muscular dystrophy, the symptoms and their relative seriousness are different, and the panel decided that only the former constituted "a serious genetic disease". Discussions are concerning the decision are currently continuing in the ethics committee.

Closeup: Railroading of approval for production of human clone embryo

At the session of the specialist panel on bioethics (see also article and Closeup in BJ May 2004) held on 23 June 2004, the members were required to vote on whether or not to allow the production of human clone embryos. The vote turned out to be in favour of granting permission, with 10 in favour, 5 opposed, and no abstentions. On 17 July 2004, the final report was completed, which includes wording to the effect that the production of human clone embryos is acceptable.

The group of cells which form at an early stage of the life of a human is called a human embryo. This story begins with the ability to manipulate the embryo outside the human body. Up until the end of the 1980s, the manipulation of the human embryo was strictly for reproduction purposes. This dramatically changed in the mid-1990s with the development of clone techniques and human ES cells. The manipulation of the human embryo far exceeded that for reproduction purposes, and as the possibility of the re-making of the human body came into sight, so too did the potential for the creation of a huge new industry. The keyword was "regenerative medicine".

Regenerative medicine is a new medical field in which organs and so on which have some dysfunction can be repaired or replaced by transplantation using the regenerative ability of cells and tissues. It is said that using human ES cells, as many cells and tissues for transplantation as required can be produced at an industrial level. It is also said that having command over cell nucleus transplantation techniques, in other words cloning techniques, by producing a human embryo containing the cell nucleus of the patient who is to receive a transplant, and then producing human ES cells from that embryo, will eliminate problems of immunological rejection. The term human clone embryo is used to distinguish the embryo thus produced from a normal human embryo. If a human clone embryo is implanted in a woman's uterus, the result would be a cloned human.

The clone subcommittee, as the working group of the bioethics panel, has been continuing its work on the manipulation of the human embryo for the past six years and four months. During that time, the Law concerning Regulation relating to Human Cloning Techniques and Other Similar Techniques has come into effect, and guidelines have been produced for the use of human ES cells and embryos. The common thread of thinking that runs through all of these is that the human embryo is to be respected as the "germ of life," and that it may be used for research purposes only in cases where there are scientific grounds indicating that there is a possibility for the treatment of otherwise incurable diseases and so on. The way was open for their use after very thorough discussions, and with various conditions attached.

A split of opinions continues between those in favour of production of human clone embryos for use in regenerative medicine, and those who wish to be more prudent because of fears of the "industrialization of the human body", and anxieties about the safety aspects of animal experiments. Frustrated by this state of affairs, the chairman Taizo Yakushiji (visiting professor at Keio University) forced the vote on the basis that whether or not to accept the production of human clone embryos can be decided first and then conditions attached later. To several of the panelists who strongly opposed the vote because, for example, "it is necessary to first show the scientific grounds for use in regenerative medicine before voting on it," chairman Yakushiji simply repeated that it was necessary "to open the door for patients who are waiting" for treatments using human clone embryos, and without giving even one concrete reply used his prerogative as chairman to call for the vote. In such a situation, is it really possible to say that discussions have been thorough and complete? It is important not to forget that all of the materials for this research will be the stuff we are made of, human embryos. In a human clone embryo experiment in South Korea, more than 200 ova are being used. Suddenly, in the name of technical development for regenerative medicine, even the human embryo is being used as just another industrial raw material.

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