From Bio Journal - June 2008

MAFF to review guidelines on GM crop cultivation

A meeting of the MAFF Investigative Commission on Guidelines for Experimental Cultivation of GM Crops was held on 18 April 2008. A review of the guidelines, based on the results of experiments at the Hokkaido Agricultural Experiment Station (see BJ May 2008), was announced, but turned out to be nothing more than a superficial amendment. Hokkaido's experiments on cross-fertilization show that the buffer zone distances indicated in MAFF's guidelines are too short and unrealistic, but these have not been amended.

Two amendments took place. 1. "Based on past data, locations shall be chosen such that the average wind speed at the time of flowering shall not exceed 3 m/s. Even in that case, when it is thought that especially strong winds, as from typhoons and so on, are possible, wind suppression by wind-breaking nets or stamen removal shall be carried out." 2. "With respect to rice and soybean, in the case that cross-fertilization is though possible due to low temperature before the flowering period, either the measures for prevention of cross-fertilization stipulated in (2) will be taken, or the cultivation experiment will be suspended prior to flowering."

The measures for prevention of cross-fertilization stipulated in (2) consist of the following three items, "a. Removal of or stamen, or covering with bags. b. Covering with a net capable of preventing the movement of pollen by wind or visiting insects during flowering, or cultivation in a greenhouse. c. Measures stipulated by the Director-General of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Research Council Secretariat on the advice of academic experts.

Kobe University dumps GM E. coli bacteria illegally

The laboratory of Professor KUNO Takayoshi of Kobe University Graduate School Medical Research Department was discovered to have washed down the ordinary sink or to have thrown away in ordinary garbage GM E. coli bacteria used for research on the mechanism of cancer pathogenesis. Kobe University immediately suspended all GM experiments in the university. This illegal dumping has continued for four years, despite the fact that the domestic Cartagena laws require the sterilization of GM E. coli bacteria.

Deliberations on food products from somatic cell cloned livestock begin

On 2 May 2008, deliberations concerning the safety of food products produced from somatic cell cloned livestock began in the Food and Safety Commission's specialist working panel on newly developed foods. (See BJ May 2008) On the panel is Tokyo University Professor KUMAGAI Susumu, who is the representative of the MHLW research group which carried out experiments on cloned livestock and evaluated the foods as "safe". The fact that Professor KUMAGAI should be discussing his own evaluations is beginning to receive strong criticism from consumers organizations.

iPS cell research symposium held in Tokyo

A symposium entitled "Outlook and Tasks in iPS Cell Research" was held at the Tsuda Hall, Sendagaya, Tokyo on 15 April 2008 under the sponsorship of the Mainichi Newspaper. (See BJ May 2008) Among the panellists were Professor NAKAYAMA Shinya of the Kyoto University Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences, who successfully produced induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from human skin cells in 2007, and Ian Wilmut, Director of the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, who was responsible for the birth of the somatic cell clone Finn Dorset lamb named Dolly in 1996. In a speech at the symposium, Professor Nakayama stated that there were three possibilities for the use of iPS cells, pharmaceutical toxicity tests, new pharmaceutical creation, and cell therapy, but at the present time pharmaceutical toxicity tests and new pharmaceutical creation showed the highest possibility of being realized. Further, concerning the dispute with the German pharmaceutical manufacturer Bayer over filing a patent for iPS cells, Professor Nakayama boldly stated that, "From what I read in the newspapers, our research on this was carried out earlier. If it is simply that they are following on after us, we do not think it is much of a threat." (More below...)

Discussion on production of reproductive cells from "pluripotent cells" reignites

Moves surrounding the production of reproductive cells from so-called "pluripotent cells", human ES cells and so on, has once again become much more active. On 26 March 2008, MEXT decided to establish a "reproductive cell production and research use working group" under its specialist committee. At present, production of reproductive cells from human ES cells is prohibited by guidelines, but deliberations aimed at lifting the ban were begun around April 2006 (See BJ March 2008). The trigger for this was the shortage of the unfertilized human ova used in human clone embryo research. Because of the great burden that ova removal puts on the female body, it is extremely difficult to obtain unfertilized ova, and therefore the numbers that can be used for research are limited.

The idea is that from the unfertilized ovum, a human clone embryo can be produced, and from this patient-specific ES cells can be obtained. If this can be successfully carried out there is the possibility for a huge business opportunity, and this is why research on this topic heated up and even resulted in development competition between states. That was when former professor HWANG U-seok (also spelt "Woo-suk") at Seoul University (ROK) produced the famous papers containing fabricated data. In April 2004, the world was stunned when a paper by Hwang and his team claiming that they had produced ES cells from human clone embryos was published in the electronic version of the journal Science, and further on 5 May 2004 when a further paper by the team claiming to have produced patient-specific human embryo ES cells was published in the same journal. Later, however, there were shown to have been a complete pack of lies, and since the papers were fabrications, there were in fact no human clone embryo ES cells. The minus image of the research created in the mind of the public was a serious problem, but what disappointed researchers more than this were the research results. Despite having used a total of 427 unfertilized ova in the research (242 for the first paper and 185 for the second), in the end no human clone embryo ES cells had been produced. Following this incident, excitement over human clone embryo research waned quickly.

As human clone embryo research stagnated in the doldrums, discussions concerning the production of reproductive cells from ES cells also came to a standstill. The background to the re-ignition of the discussion, even to the extent of setting up a new working group, was the publishing of a paper in November 2007 by Professor NAKAYAMA Shinya and his team at the Kyoto University Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences. He had produced induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from human skin cells. iPS cells have almost the same characteristics as ES cells. World attention was focused on this research and it has already developed into an area of competition between states, with Japan and the USA playing central roles. In order to avoid resistance from public opinion, MEXT first of all came out with a policy of prohibiting the production of reproductive cells from iPS cells, but in fact opened up the door to research and, in order to surge ahead of the USA in the research, clearly showed in the establishment of the new working group that its real aim was to life the ban as soon as possible. It goes without saying that a reproductive cell can be fertilized and will become a living human if placed inside a woman's uterus. The production of reproductive cells from "pluripotent cells" is an issue 'pregnant' with big ethical problems.

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