By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.
“Ball-and-stick model of the morphine molecule, C17H19NO3.” by Ben Mills. – Own work. source
Drug Policy and Biotechnology
A Way to Brew Morphine Raises Concerns Over Regulation
Traditionally, heroin has been made from poppy – the opium from poppy seeds yields morphine, which can then be refined to heroin. However, it might soon be possible to convert sugar to morphine using genetically modified yeast. There are several steps in this conversion, and a recent study by scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, and Canada’s Concordia University, published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, has provided the final missing one. This has triggered a debate on whether synthesis of morphine should be regulated, and if yes, how? Dr. Kenneth A. Oye, a professor of engineering and political science at M.I.T., and other experts argue that this technology could benefit the heroin trade more than the prescription painkiller industry, because drug sellers currently rely on smuggling raw materials from countries like Afghanistan and Laos, and brewing close to home would save them costs. The pharmaceutical industry, on the other hand, has a steady supply of cheap opium from countries like India and Australia, or can synthesize opiates in their own labs. Dr. Oye and others suggest that steps should be taken to prevent abuse of the synthetic approach, including restricting access to the bio-engineered yeast strains and the DNA. Biotech experts who counter these suggestions say that Dr. Oye’s precautions might be overkill, because producing morphine by fermentation using engineered yeasts is a delicate process that may not yet be ready for producing heroin in large quantities. They argue that restricting access to DNA stifles research and may not necessarily succeed in preventing a heroin synthesis epidemic. Robert H. Carlson, the author of “Biology Is Technology,” says, “DNA synthesis is already a democratic, low-cost technology. If you restrict access, you create a black market.” Because the genetically modified yeast strain is not commonly available yet, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is not too concerned about an imminent threat. But FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You is glad that the debate on regulating access has begun before the synthetic technology is ready. He says, “We want the people in the field to be the sentinels, to recognize when someone is trying to abuse or exploit their work and call the FBI.” (Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times)
In unusual move, German scientists lobby for GM labeling
Whether or not to label genetically modified (GM) food is a topic of huge debate, and generally, people who oppose GM food want the food labeled. In a surprising move, German scientists and other supporters of GM crops are lobbying for labeling GM crops because they want the public to know that there is nothing to be afraid of, hoping that this would make it easier for GM products to reach the consumer. This petition requests the German government to draft a law that would require labeling of all products that contain or have been produced using GM organisms. The petition was drafted by Horst Rehberger, leader of the group Forum Grüne Vernunft (Forum Green Reason), and has the support of several prominent scientists and politicians. It requires 50,000 signatures in 4 weeks to be considered by the German parliament. Though GM crops and food derived directly from them are already labeled in Germany, certain products in which genetic engineering plays an indirect role are not required to be labeled. This petition seeks to address the deficiencies in the current system. But environmental organizations like the Greenpeace are concerned that labeling all GM products, irrespective of how much genetic engineering actually went into their making, would negate the differences and could distract the public from the real issue, and make it harder for consumers to make choices. Proponents of the GM labeling say that the labels should be graded differentially, for instance, between products that contain GM organisms versus products that were processed by GM organisms. “I think we just need to be honest and transparent to consumers,” says Wilfried Schwab, a professor of biotechnology of natural products at Technische Universität München. The proposal is a chance to change the conversation about GM organisms, says geneticist Hans-Jörg Jacobsen. Modeling studies have suggested that if GM food was sold at a 15 % discount, and organic food at a 15 % premium, consumers are more likely to choose GM products. With time, a GM label could even become a positive sign, Jacobsen says. (Kai Kupferschmidt, Science Insider)
Privacy and Genomic Data
Microbiomes raise privacy concerns
The human body harbors many types of bacteria, collectively called the microbiome. The microbiome’s influence on our health has become an important topic of research. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it would be possible to uniquely identify an individual based on information contained in their microbiome DNA. This information could also reveal details about their health, diet or ethnicity, raising privacy concerns. Curtis Huttenhower, a computational biologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, and lead author of the study, says, “As the field develops, we need to make sure there’s a realization that our microbiomes are highly unique.” Huttenhower’s team investigated if microbiomes lasted long enough in humans to help identify individuals over time. They used the microbiome data publicly available through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Microbiome Project (HMP). Though the HMP does not identify individuals by name, a participant’s first sample could be compared with a second one donated much later. The researchers found that the microbiome in a person’s stool sample offered the best signature – a person’s first sample could be linked to their second sample using microbial DNA 86% of the time, whereas skin samples could be match only about 25% of the time. But Huttenhower concludes that it would be “exceptionally challenging to do anything with the microbiome data in a single study,” and that privacy risks would come when a person participated in two different microbiome studies that each contained different pieces of identifiable information. Publicly available microbiome data poses privacy risks also because of the presence of potentially identifiable human DNA, suggests another study published recently in the journal Genome Research. A team lead by computational biologist Jonathan Allen of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has found that the HMP database has stretches of human DNA called short tandem repeats that are used in forensics to distinguish between individuals (even though NIH took measures to eliminate human DNA from the HMP as much as possible). Even if this information per se does not help form a precise DNA signature of an individual, the increase in publicly available DNA databases increases the risk. Amy McGuire, a bioethicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says that those who participated in the HMP study were advised of the risk, and that there should not be premature panic over this. Laura Rodriguez, director of policy at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, says that an overreaction could slow understanding of the microbiome, and that as long as precautions are taken to eliminate privacy concerns (such as removing human DNA from the HMP) “we would want to keep it in open access because of the value it adds to science.” (Ellen Callaway, Nature)
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