From Bio Journal - September 2004

Trend: GMO compatible herbicides may affect children's brains

It has been suggested in Japan that herbicides which are applied to herbicide resistant GM crops can have an effect on children's brains.

Yoichiro Kuroda at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Neuroscience (TMIN) reported (Science Journal KAGAKU Vol. 74, Aug. 2004) that agrichemicals can have effects on children's brains by mentioning the recent case of a murder by children. He also referred to an experimental study on animals conducted by Tomoko Fujii et al. at Teikyo University 10 years ago.

According to the study, rats that were administered "glufosinate", which is GM compatible herbicide's main component, showed increasing aggressive behaviour, such as biting others. Baby rats born from mother rats which were administered the glufosinate showed abnormal behaviour, such as damaging tails. Baby female rats that normally never bite, but who were born from mother rats which were administered high doses of glufosinate, became extremely aggressive, and started to bite each other until finally one of the fighting pair was killed.

Kuroda pointed out that although glufosinate is the main component of the herbicide "Basta," the main component of the herbicide "Roundup," called "glyphosate," has a similar chemical structure. Since GM crops have come onto the market, a broad range of food crops with these agrochemical residues has flooded the distribution system. Kuroda warned that, "People who are concerned about children's health should be careful about these agrochemicals."

MAFF approves 7 GM plants/crops for cultivation

On July 30, 2004, a general review session of the biodiversity impact assessment investigative commission was held, and the commission approved 4 different GM blue carnations by Suntory Flowers, and 3 other GMOs, including Monsanto's GM maize under the Type I usage rule. The Type I usage rule means that the GM crops are evaluated as having no effect on wild fauna and flora, in other words, they are approved for outdoor cultivation.

At the end of the session, the commission brought up an interrogatory delivered by "No to GM crops - Ibaraki Network" regarding spilled GM canola seeds in Kashima port in Ibaraki. The chairman, Mr. Harada, said, "The purpose of this commission is to examine applications for the Type I usage rule, and therefore the commission will not conduct any review concerning the GM canola case". Mr. Yasuda, assistant division chief at the Wildlife Division under the Environment Ministry, commented that "seeds spill is assumed to some degree, and there is no influence on biodiversity as far as they are spilled around the port areas. Monitoring is now being planned for two or three years in the future, in order to check to what degree GM plants exist in environments around ports all over Japan".

JA vows to bail out of GM R&D

On July 21, 2004, the No! GMO Campaign met JA-Zennoh (the Japanese National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations) to discuss the glasshouse experiment of cedar pollen allergenic GM rice at JA's agricultural technical centre in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. Mr. Takada, the division chief of the agricultural general measure division at JA-Zennoh, clearly stated that "The R&D on GM rice will be continued, but only until 2006. The experiment will only be conducted inside glasshouses, not in open-air fields. Zennoh has only worked on developing a human-lactoferrin GM rice and a cedar pollen allergenic GM rice. There is no intention to work on any other GMOs. The development of the human-lactoferrin GM rice has already been abandoned. Zennoh will bail out of GMO R&D completely in 2006 after finalising the cedar pollen allergenic GM rice research. The reason why Zennoh is continuing the allergenic GM rice research is to maintain the rights to the seed.

Final report on use of human embryo comes before Cabinet Office Council for Science and Technology Policy

A plenary session of the Cabinet Office Council for Science and Technology Policy was held on 23 July 2004 at which the report entitled "Basic Thinking on the Handling of the Human Embryo" was presented. The report was finalized by the specialist panel on bioethics after 32 meetings since August 2001. This represents the end of the story for the human embryo report, railroaded through the specialist panel on 23 June 2004, and which contains many problems, among them the acceptance of the production of human clone embryos. (See Closeup August 2004)

Opinions on the specialist panel were split right to the end, when chairperson Taizo Yakushiji forced a vote to complete the process of deliberation. Because of this, the report contains an appendix in which the views of the individual panelists are set out. The five panelists who opposed the report as it stood when the vote was forced have submitted a formal opinion in 13 clauses. Concerning the production of human clone embryos, they state that this should not be permitted, "until the ethical debate has deepened, and until the indication of sufficient scientific grounds allow social understanding and assent to be forthcoming."

Use of cells from aborted foetuses - unofficial activities

An MHLW expert committee is currently debating the use of cells from aborted foetuses (Feb and May 2004), but recently unofficial activities in this area have become rather lively.

Firstly the problem of disposing of aborted foetuses as ordinary garbage by the Isesaki Clinic of obstetrics and gynaecology in Naka Ward, Yokohama City. It may appear that this has little direct connection with the use of cells from aborted foetuses, but the case certainly does highlight the ethical outlook of (some) doctors towards aborted foetuses. Further, according to an investigation by the Japan Spinal Cord Foundation, nine patients with spinal cord injuries have travelled to China for cell transplantation treatment since February 2004 (as reported in the Asahi Shinbun for 22 July 2004). The cost per treatment has been at least two million yen (over US$18,000), despite the fact that safety aspects and effectiveness are unconfirmed. It will be interesting to observe how these problems affect the debates now taking place under the auspices of the MHLW.

Closeup: Background to the allegations of transfer of unlisted stock by university-based venture businesses

Japanese newspapers carried articles concerning "payment of several hundred million yen to professor working on clinical trials by Osaka University bioventure" on 12 June 2004.

Briefly, the allegation is as follows: Five researchers, including a professor, of Osaka University, who carried out clinical trials for a gene therapy at the Osaka University Hospital, accepted unlisted (yet-to-be-offered) shares in the company, AnGes MG, Inc., which was working towards the commercialisation of the medicines involved. One of the recipients later received 32 million yen for half of his shares after the shares were listed on the "Mothers" stock market.

AnGes MG is a company, said to be the representative university-based bioventure of western Japan, set up by Faculty of Medicine of Osaka University Asst. Prof. Ryuichi Morishita and others, principally to develop novel medicines. The company became the centre of attention when they were listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange "Mothers" market (a market for high-growth and emerging stocks). Incidentally, the representative university-based bioventure of eastern Japan is Tokyo University professor Yuusuke Nakamura's OncoTherapy Science, Inc.

Although not quite on the level of the "Recruit Scandal" (a bribery scandal which came to light in 1988), it does allow us to peek into the one aspect of the murky money flows of the rapidly changing scenery of Japanese academia, including the switchover to Independent Administrative Institutions of the national universities, industrial-government-academic alliances, and the formation of university-based venture businesses.

In April 2004, Japan's national (public) universities became Independent Administrative Institutions. This was in line with PM Koizumi's administrative reform policy of reducing educational budgets and so on. Released from strong guidance by MEXT, and abandoning the already crumbling ideals of democratic "university self-government", the national universities transformed themselves into top-down autocracies based on the immense authority invested in the university president and governors (former high-ranking bureaucrats). Although huge amounts of tax funds were still being directed towards the universities, the system for procuring funds changed from one of distribution by bureaucrats to one where individual universities could procure funds through business efforts (screening being carried out by bureaucrats). On the one hand the teaching and administrative staff faced the difficulty of the transition to pay structures based on competence and performance, on the other hand, because the restriction on "side businesses" was lifted, for researchers with a developed "business sense", it was as if their day had come. For the universities to turn their intellectual wealth (research accomplishments) into business ideas that would pull money into the university (and teaching staff pockets), the cooperation of companies was indispensable. Thus the government and universities worked together to develop modes for, and encourage, alliances with industry.

In this way the national and private universities got the private corporations involved in what has turned out to be "the great age of competition", giving birth to "the great market for education and research". Nationwide, over 700 university-based venture companies have come into existence.

R&D requires huge amounts of funds. The means of obtaining these are venture capital, competitive funds (from taxes), subsidies (from taxes), listing as a stock company, and so on. AnGes MG has chosen the path of listing on the stock exchange.

The allegations surrounding AnGes MG can be said to be symbolic of the changes taking place today as the universities transform themselves from institutions which carry out research and education for the public good into large corporations (or their R and D divisions). This movement towards "dirty alliances" of cash and learning looks set to continue to proliferate in the future.

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