From Bio Journal - June 2007

NIAS to plant cedar pollen allergy alleviating GM rice again this year

On 27 April 2007, NIAS announced the holding of hearings for cultivation for GM crops by press release. According to the press release, the cedar pollen allergy alleviating GM rice in continuation from last year (see BJ June 2006, Article 1 and Article 2), and herbicide tolerant soybean as well as an insecticidal and herbicide tolerant maize will be grown for exhibition. Possibly anticipating antipathy from local residents, the hearings were scheduled for the dates 9 to 12 May (2007), both in the morning and afternoon, and were supposed to take place with about only ten people attending each hearing. With regard to the cedar pollen allergy alleviating GM rice, an outline of the safety tests using animals were announced on 03 April, concluding that "no abnormalities were found". However, since the GM rice was not recognized as a foodstuff, it will now have to undergo animal and clinical trials in the same way as all new pharmaceuticals. Rice seedling transplantation is scheduled to take place in June.

GM crop trial cultivation plans (2007, Japan)
Monsanto Japan (Ibaraki Prefecture)Herbicide tolerant beet
Herbicide tolerant soybean
Herbicide tolerant + insecticidal maize
Forest Tree Breeding Center - FTBC (Ibaraki Prefecture)Cellulose-enhanced poplar
National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science - NILGS (Tochigi Prefecture)Herbicide tolerant + acetolactate synthase inhibitor tolerant maize
National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences - NIAS (Ibaraki Prefecture)Cedar pollen allergy alleviating rice
Herbicide tolerant soybean
Insecticidal + herbicide tolerant maize
National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences - NIAES (Ibaraki Prefecture)Herbicide tolerant soybean
Nippon Paper GroupCedar pollen allergy alleviating rice (in hothouse)
Syngenta Central Research Institute, Kanza Testing Center (Shizuoka Prefecture)Cultivation trials scheduled

First genetic therapy for Parkinson's disease begins in Japan

The first genetic therapy for Parkinson's disease began in Japan at the Jichi Medical School Hospital on 7 May 2007. The patient is a man in his 50s who contracted the disease 11 years ago. The therapy will be carried out by Professor NAKANO Imaharu and his group of the same hospital. Parkinson's disease is a nerve degeneration disease which occurs due to a reduction of the nerve communication substance dopamine in the brain and is characterized by shaking of the limbs, difficulty in walking, and so on. Conventionally, a pharmaceutical treatment involving the administering of "L-DOPA", a precursor of dopamine has been carried out. Entering the body, L-DOPA is transformed into dopamine through the action of the enzyme L-Amino Acid Decarboxylase (AADC).

The plan at the Jichi Medical School Hospital is to combine the AADC gene with a vector using genetic engineering technology, and then administer this to the patient in order to alleviate the symptoms of the disease. The adeno-associated virus (AAV) is used as the vector. Six cases have been implemented in the USA, no serious side reactions being reported thus far.

However, when looking at gene therapies in general, there certainly appears to be many problems with safety. Although not the same as AAV, retroviruses and adenoviruses used in gene therapy as vectors have resulted in patients contracting leukemia as a side reaction in France (see BJ May 2005), and there have been cases of death in the USA. With respect to effectiveness, there is no known case of a disease being completely cured, and in many cases the genetic therapy is used in tandem with conventional treatments, making it hard to judge the degree of effectiveness of the genetic therapy. Even so, it seems that the reason why gene therapies are being implemented one after another is that effectively they are experiments for the development of a vector. This current example at Jichi Medical School Hospital takes the form of intramural research, but the manufacture and screening of the vector will be carried out by the US biotech corporations Avigen and Genzyme, and the results of the research will all become basic data for the development of vectors.

Two-thirds of processed foods either have GM contaminated raw materials or are unanalysable

The independent administrative body Food and Agricultural Materials Inspection Center (FAMIC) has investigated processed foods to see if they are labeled correctly according to the JAS (Japan Agricultural Standards) Law. The results of the survey were announced on 30 March 2007. 378 products were analyzed with regard to GM contents, 237 (67.2%) were found to contain GM contamination (182) or were found to be unanalysable (55). With regard to the unanalysable products, an investigation of the manufacturers was implemented, and in the end all 237 products were found to be within the allowed 5% limit of GM contamination.

Illegal sales of glowing GM freshwater fish

It has recently become known that a freshwater fish, Zebra danio, made to glow by GM technology, have been imported into Japan and were being sold at pet shops. On 24 April 2007 the Ministry of the Environment instructed that sales should cease and the fish be retrieved. Samples of this fish were taken from coral reefs and a gene for a red glowing protien was inserted. 350 of these GM fish were imported and about 100 sold. Previously a glowing killifish (Japanese: medaka) was imported and sold in Japan. Illegal importation of GM fish as pets is apparently attractive enough for some people to want to repeat it. (Sankei Shinbun 2007/04/25)

GM crop approval data for April 2007

GM crops approved for open field cultivation (Type 1 usage)
(Biodiversity Impact Assessment Investigative Commission)
NameApproval Date*
RiceContains cedar pollen peptideNIAS**7Crp # 1019 April 2007
MaizeLysine-enhanced, insect resistanceMonsanto JapanYL038 x MON810, OECD UI: REN-0038-3 x MON-810-619 April 2007
* Technically, approval is granted after public comments have been accepted.
** (Independent Administrative Body) National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences

Closeup: Second Generation Biofuels

The most significant discussion point at the recent European conference on GMO free zones held in Brussels was biofuels, especially with regard to their competition with human food. The focus of the arguments in Europe was on development of the so-called "second generation" biofuels.

The first to propose the second generation biofuels was the European Environmental Bureau, which in December 2005 pointed out the limits of first-generation biofuels (see BJ February 2007)- simple consumption of bioethanol and biodiesel - and pointed out the way to the "second generation" - environmental conservation and non-competition with human food.

The second generation would demand that the energy source be sustainable and take the environment into account at each stage, seeds, cultivation, manufacture, storage, distribution, and consumption. Here it calls into doubt the current state of the manufacture, distribution and consumption biofuels, which continue to use large amounts of fossil fuels, destroy tropical forests, and use large volumes of water and chemicals. At the same time, safeguards for developing countries which provide raw materials are also demanded.

The raw material for the second-generation biofuels will be cellulosic material. Currently Russia is the only country with commercial cellulosic biofuel manufacture, where it is produced from waste liquids from pulp. Costs for production of bioethanol from cellulosic materials are high and cannot compete with other crops. But now countries are competing in the R&D sphere to overcome these limits, and the hero of R&D story is GM technology. The objects of this R&D push are trees and microorganisms.

On 26 March 2007, MAFF and the Ministry of the Environment formally approved outdoor cultivation trials for a GM poplar (see BJ May 2007) applied for by the independent administrative entity, the Forest Tree Breeding Center (FTBC), located in Hitachi City, Ibaraki Prefecture, about 120 km north of Tokyo on the Pacific Ocean coast. The poplar is a broad-leafed deciduous tree which grows to a height of over 20 meters. This GM poplar has enhanced cellulose content brought about by inserting a gene from an aspergillous fungus. Tests up to now show a 10% increase in cellulose and 16% increase in density.

Further, the US Department of Energy approved subsidies of US$385 million over four years for six projects to produce ethanol from cellulosic materials. Again the leading parts are to be played by GMOs. Enzymes to break down cellulose and microorganisms to promote its fermentation are to be transformed by GM techniques in order to increase the efficiency of ethanol production.

Development of trees and microorganisms using GM technology has thus become the main route for the development of the second generation of biofuels. It would appear that the demand for a switch to a second generation of biofuels that would take the environment into account has somehow taken the wrong track somewhere...

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