POISONOUS POTATOES: A CASE STUDY IN MISCOMMUNICATING SCIENCE
September, 1998

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Public attitudes about agricultural biotechnology, and about genetically modified foods in particular, are easily shaped by sensationalism coupled with effective use of the media. As reported in recent issues of this News Report, Europe has been the scene for acts of vandalism, calls for a complete moratorium on biotechnology research, and myriad legal challenges to the importation of transgenic food commodities.

Adding fuel to the fire is a recent report from a study in which rats fed transgenic insect resistant potatoes developed serious health effects. This is the sort of high-voltage "news" that garners a lot of media attention and public outcry. As with many controversial topics, however, the full story takes longer to tell and is less likely to make the evening news. The following article provides a more complete picture of the story behind the headlines, and should be read as a cautionary tale about communicating responsibly with the public. It was published in the August 13, 1998 issue of The Bowditch Group Electronic AgBiotech Newsletter and is reprinted here with permission.

P. L. Traynor, Editor
traynor@nbiap.biochem.vt.edu

On Monday, August 10, 1998 Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, reported that he conducted an experiment in which five rats were fed genetically modified (GM) potatoes for 110 days. The potatoes contained genes either from snowdrop plants or South American jack beans which encode for lectins GNA and Con A, respectively.

Lectins are proteins highly resistant to digestion which can be assimilated into the body. Some are powerful growth triggers which mimic hormones and some can change the bacterial composition of gut flora. However, the lectins in Dr. Pusztai's experiments are known to be toxic to insects. John Gatehouse developed the potatoes at the University of Durham for Pusztai's studies and was not surprised when Pusztai reported the GM potatoes stunted the growth of rats and damaged their immune systems. "The genes that were added direct the manufacture of plant lectins which are harmful to insects," said Gatehouse. "We know that they're toxic to insects, so it isn't shocking if they also have toxicity to animals. That was what we wanted to know, and that's why the tests were carried out."

Dr. Pusztai's mistake was that he chose the "World in Action" television program, rather than a scientific forum, to broadcast his uncorroborated results. Regardless of their validity, the results sparked much controversy on the safety of genetically modified foodstuffs and lead to calls by some British politicians for a moratorium on the sale of GM foods.

The Scottish Office had commissioned Pusztai's study to investigate the role of lectins, which might be used for insertion into plants to increase resistance to insects. Therefore, the potatoes were not intended to be commercially developed for human consumption and were never put through the same rigorous tests required of genetically engineered plants destined for human consumption.

The Rowett Research Institute is an internationally recognized center for research in human and animal nutrition and biological sciences of relevance to health, food and agriculture. It investigates the relationship of diet to health and disease states, and the biochemical mechanisms which control growth and reproduction. In response to the "World in Action" program, the Institute has been inundated with requests for the raw data on which Pusztai based his conclusions.

Andrew Chesson, a senior scientist at Rowett said, "We asked Dr. Pusztai to gather that data in such a form that we could circulate it, and when we looked at that data a number of inconsistencies were found." Dr. Eva Gelencser, a member of Pusztai's team who carried out the studies on immune responsiveness, revealed that the relevant data provided by Dr. Pusztai referred not to experimental studies on potatoes with transgenic Con A but to GNA transgenic potatoes.

The detailed analysis on the transgenic GNA studies are due to be completed by Friday, August 14. Therefore, the results Dr. Pusztai shared with the "World in Action" program were not complete and were not data which had been discussed extensively at scientific meetings involving UK collaborators and the Scottish Office in April of this year as was originally suggested.

The decision by the Institute to allow Dr. Pusztai to respond to the "World in Action" request for information was based on the Institute's recognition of its responsibility not to suppress scientific views of importance in this, or any other, field. It was recognized and agreed that previously published concepts relating to the use of lectins as transgenics could be discussed but that it was improper to present data which had not been published or peer reviewed.

Chesson said Dr. Pusztai was suspended on Wednesday, August 12, 1998, two days after the initial airing of the controversial "World in Action" program. "The reason for the suspension was that some of the claims that he'd made about the effects of transgenic (genetically modified) potatoes could not be substantiated by the data he currently holds. I think that he may have spoken on the program outside the realms of fact and into speculation but unfortunately it all came across as fact." Chesson said a number of long-term feeding studies conducted by Pusztai were found to be incomplete.

He said the incident was a deeply embarrassing experience for the institute and he apologized. "We have been misled by a very senior scientist at this institute. We acted in good faith on the information he provided us with." Chesson said Pusztai, age 68, will leave Rowett once scientists at the institute and outside experts have evaluated the data. "We will of course complete the work that Dr Pusztai has undertaken, and we will make that information available to anybody and everybody who is interested," he said.

In response to the cry for a moratorium and a ban on all GM crops, Monsanto's business manager in Ireland, Dr. Patrick O'Reilly, said no company would use such lectin proteins and they were "not present in any of the crops coming to commercialization." He rejected suggestions that the research reflected an absence of long-term mammalian testing of genetically modified products. John Hammond, head of development at AgrEvo UK, a company which is also developing GM crops, was quoted as saying, "The Rowett work is a bit unusual - they have taken a gene that generates a potentially quite potent insecticide and found it doesn't meet the safety criterion." British Food Minister Jeff Rooker was cited as stressing that there were only four genetically modified products currently on sale in Britain - tomato paste, vegetarian cheese, maize and soya and that the genetically modified potatoes used in the experiment would never have been allowed onto shop shelves.

Professor Derek Burke, a former British Government adviser on new food technology, was quoted as telling the "World in Action" television program that calls for a moratorium were an "overreaction." "This is a new technology and people worry about what we might do to the world around us, they worry about the environment, they worry about safety. What they don't always understand is that we have a very tough regulatory process in place, the toughest in the world, and that these new products are being looked at extremely carefully. ...This report that has come out of the Scottish laboratory would never have got through the regulatory system, so I don't think a moratorium is necessary. What is necessary is carefully controlled progress." A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was quoted as saying, "We have not seen any of the data, but we would be interested in seeing it as soon as possible and will ask our Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes to examine it thoroughly."

Chesson, who will head Rowett's evaluation team, said firmly: "It would be unwise to draw any conclusions whatsoever from the data that we currently hold." According to the Rowett Institute, the long and complex studies on the use of lectins in transgenic plants, including published as well as unpublished work, will now be reviewed to ensure the validity of the findings. The GNA transgenic studies and comparable experiments on diets where both GNA and Con A have been added to the potato mix will be collated for urgent transmissions to MAFF and the EU. It would be premature to conclude whether or not there are data of concern to those assessing the safety of foods with transgenic lectins. The analysis of the new findings will not be released by the Rowett Institute but will be scrutinized by collaborating groups of scientists and official expert committees. The Institute will also arrange to do appropriate additional studies on these safety issues once the significance of the current findings is clear.

Sources

PR newswire and Reuters were the primary sources of the following press releases:

1. Experiment fuels modified food concern. August 10, 1998, published at 06:40 GMT.

2. Government resists ban on genetic food. August 10, 1998. PA News / London Evening Standard.

3. Food professor suspended after genetic food claims. Alan Wheatley. August 12, 1998. 1:09 p.m. EST.

4. Rowett Research Institute, Press Release, August 12, 1998.

Colleen Storzek
The Bowditch Group, Inc.

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