The Medical Applications of GMOs


Medical applications of GMOs

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been around for decades, starting with the first GM food approved for release in 1994 — Flavr Savr tomato. In fact, much of what we eat today are genetically modified (GM) foods. A large percentage of crops in the US are genetically modified, such as corn, soybean, cotton, canola, and sugar beets. Being a field of promise as well as a subject of debate, GMOs have several potential applications in the medical field.

Tomatoes as an alternative to Parkinson’s disease drug

To date, Parkinson’s disease is still incurable, but treatments are available to handle symptoms and improve patient’s quality of life. Declared by WHO as one of the essential medicines, L-DOPA is the most common prescription for Parkinson’s disease patients. It deals with depleted dopamine (a neurotransmitter) concentration, thus decreases symptoms such as bradykinesia, stiffness, tremors, and loss of balance. However, not everyone can afford the daily $2 price of synthetic L-DOPA, particularly in developing countries. Besides, there are people who suffer from adverse effects, e.g., nausea and behavioural complications upon taking synthetic L-DOPA.

Researchers at John Innes Centre have thus come out with a more affordable and natural source of this Parkinson’s disease drug — GM tomatoes. They engineered the tomatoes by inserting a gene responsible for the synthesis of L-DOPA. This specific gene will encode tyrosinase, an enzyme that uses tyrosine (an amino acid found in many foods) to produce L-DOPA. The study had demonstrated the possibilities of the tyrosine-expressing tomatoes as a new biological source of L-DOPA. These GM tomatoes could be scaled up at a relatively lower cost with the aim to create a production pipeline. This includes the L-DOPA extraction from tomatoes and purification into final pharmaceutical products.

Rice that reduces your blood pressure

Hypertension is one of the greatest global public health concerns, affecting 1.13 billion people worldwide based on WHO’s estimation. ACE inhibitors (angiotensin-converting enzyme) are the common class of synthetic drugs to control hypertension. These synthetic ACE inhibitors often come with side effects, for instance, a headache, dry cough, and so on. A recently published paper in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry described a GM rice with potential to substitute hypertension drugs.

The researchers engineered the rice plants by introducing a new gene to them. The gene consisted of nine ACE inhibitor peptides along with a blood-vessel-relaxing peptide. The study had confirmed the ability of these GM rice plants to mass produce the targeted peptides. The researchers then administered the hypertensive rats with the extracted total protein. It took two hours before the rats experienced a drop in blood pressure without obvious undesired side effects. They also observed similar results from a 5-week treatment by feeding the rats with flour made from the GM rice. Currently, this GM rice is not available for human consumption. But if this works on human, you just need to eat a spoonful of rice to reduce your blood pressure (half a tablespoon if you are a 150 lbs adult, according to the study).

Strawberries that treats periodontal diseases in dogs

GMOs can also be used as veterinary drugs for diseases such as periodontal disease, the most common infectious disease of adult dogs. Hokusan, an agrochemical manufacturer in Japan, has come out with a solution using GM strawberries. These strawberries can synthesize antiviral interferon, a protein secreted by cells in response to foreign materials invasion. Being cultivated in a completely isolated environment, the harvested interferon-rich strawberries will then undergo crushing, freeze-drying, and pulverization.

The product, Interberry‐alpha, is a drug with an anti-inflammatory effect on gingivitis (one of the initial symptoms of periodontal disease). The dog owners can just administer the drug by smearing it into the dog’s oral cavity. Hokusan marketed this veterinary drug in 2014 after getting manufacturing and marketing approval from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Last year, Hokusan had partnered with Piedmont Animal Health, a US leading research and product development company. They aimed to develop, manufacture and commercialize this GM plant-based pharmaceutical product in the US market.

medical application of GMOs

Interberry-alpha, a drug made from GM strawberries to treat canine periodontal disease

What’s next?

Despite their potentials, GMOs are not risk-free. Moreover, there are so many concerns when it comes to GMOs, e.g., ethical concerns and health concerns. Currently, there is yet to be any valid human research that ties GMOs intake to cancers. But at the same time, no long-term human studies exist. As for regulatory hurdles, there are some countries that ban GMOs, especially in Europe. Take France as an example. It is the EU’s largest agricultural producer and bans cultivation of GMO crops.

With all these uncertainties lying around, the best approach is to do a risk-benefit evaluation. Perhaps this is how we make the best out of GMOs instead of blindly endorse or reject it.


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