We Pioneered a Technology to Save Millions of Poor Children, But a Worldwide Smear Campaign Has Blocked It
In a few weeks it will be 20 years that we three have been working together. Our project has been independently praised as one of the most influential of all projects of the last 50 years.
Two of us figured out how to make rice produce a source of vitamin A, and the rice becomes a golden color instead of white.
The project's objectives have been admired by some and vilified by others. It has directly involved teams of highly motivated people from a handful of nations, from both the private and public sector. A book, dedicated to the three of us, has been written about our work. Nevertheless, success has, so far, eluded us all. The story of our thwarted efforts is a tragedy that we hope will soon – finally – reach a milestone of potentially profound significance for humanity.
So, what have we been working on, and why haven't we succeeded yet?
Food: everybody needs it, and many are fortunate enough to have enough, even too much of it. Food is a highly emotional subject on every continent and in every culture. For a healthy life our food has to provide energy, as well as, in very small amounts, minerals and vitamins. A varied diet, easily achieved and common in industrialised countries, provides everything.
But poor people in countries where rice is grown often eat little else. White rice only provides energy: no minerals or vitamins. And the lack of one of the vitamins, vitamin A, is responsible for killing around 4,500 poor children every day. Lack of vitamin A is the biggest killer of children, and also the main cause of irreversible childhood blindness.
Our project is about fixing this one dietary deficiency – vitamin A – in this one crop – rice – for this one group of people. It is a huge group though: half of the world's population live by eating a lot of rice every day. Two of us (PB & IP) figured out how to make rice produce a source of vitamin A, and the rice becomes a golden color instead of white. The source is beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene is what makes carrots orange. Our rice is called "Golden Rice."
The technology has been donated to assist those rice eaters who suffer from vitamin A deficiency ('VAD') so that Golden Rice will cost no more than white rice, there will be no restrictions on the small farmers who grow it, and nothing extra to pay for the additional nutrition. Very small amounts of beta-carotene will contribute to alleviation of VAD, and even the earliest version of Golden Rice – which had smaller amounts than today's Golden Rice - would have helped. So far, though, no small farmer has been allowed to grow it. What happened?
To create Golden Rice, it was necessary to precisely add two genes to the 30,000 genes normally present in rice plants. One of the genes is from maize, also known as corn, and the other from a commonly eaten soil bacterium. The only difference from white rice is that Golden Rice contains beta-carotene.
It has been proven to be safe to man and the environment, and consumption of only small quantities of Golden Rice will combat VAD, with no chance of overdosing. All current Golden Rice results from one introduction of these two genes in 2004. But the use of that method – once, 15 years ago - means that Golden Rice is a 'GMO' ('genetically modified organism'). The enzymes used in the manufacture of bread, cheese, beer and wine, and the insulin which diabetics take to keep them alive, are all made from GMOs too.
The first GMO crops were created by agri-business companies. Suspicion of the technology and suspicion of commercial motivations merged, only for crop (but not enzymes or pharmaceutical) applications of GMO technology. Activists motivated by these suspicions were successful in getting the 'precautionary principle' incorporated in an international treaty which has been ratified by 166 countries and the European Union – The Cartagena Protocol.
The equivalent of 13 jumbo jets full of children crashes into the ground every day and kills them all, because of vitamin A deficiency.
This protocol is the basis of national rules governing the introduction of GMO crops in every signatory country. Government regulators in, and for, each country must agree before a GMO crop can be 'registered' to be allowed to be used by the public in that country. Currently regulatory decisions to allow Golden Rice release are being considered in Bangladesh and the Philippines.
The Cartagena Protocol obliges the regulators in each country to consider all possible risks, and to take no account of any possible benefits. Because the anti-gmo-activists' initial concerns were principally about the environment, the responsibility for governments' regulation for GMO crops – even for Golden Rice, a public health project delivered through agriculture – usually rests with the Ministry of the Environment, not the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Agriculture.
Activists discovered, before Golden Rice was created, that inducing fear of GMO food crops from 'multinational agribusinesses' was very good for generating donations from a public that was largely illiterate about food technology and production. And this source of emotionally charged donations would cease if Golden Rice was proven to save sight and lives, because Golden Rice represented the opposite of all the tropes used in anti-GMO campaigns.
Golden Rice is created to deliver a consumer benefit, it is not for profit – to multinational agribusiness or anyone else; the technology originated in the public sector and is being delivered through the public sector. It is entirely altruistic in its motivations; which activists find impossible to accept. So, the activists believed, suspicion against Golden Rice had to be amplified, Golden Rice had to be stopped: "If we lose the Golden Rice battle, we lose the GMO war."
Activism continues to this day. And any Environment Ministry, with no responsibility for public health or agriculture, and of course an interest in avoiding controversy about its regulatory decisions, is vulnerable to such activism.
The anti-GMO crop campaigns, and especially anti-Golden Rice campaigns, have been extraordinarily effective. If so much regulation by governments is required, surely there must be something to be suspicious about: 'There is no smoke without fire'. The suspicion pervades research institutions and universities, the publishers of scientific journals and The World Health Organisation, and UNICEF: even the most scientifically literate are fearful of entanglement in activist-stoked public controversy.
The equivalent of 13 jumbo jets full of children crashes into the ground every day and kills them all, because of VAD. Yet the solution of Golden Rice, developed by national scientists in the counties where VAD is endemic, is ignored because of fear of controversy, and because poor children's deaths can be ignored without controversy.
Perhaps more controversy lies in not taking scientifically based regulatory decisions than in taking them.
The tide is turning, however. 151 Nobel Laureates, a very significant proportion of all Nobel Laureates, have called on the UN, governments of the world, and Greenpeace to cease their unfounded vilification of GMO crops in general and Golden Rice in particular. A recent Golden Rice article commented, "What shocks me is that some activists continue to misrepresent the truth about the rice. The cynic in me expects profit-driven multinationals to behave unethically, but I want to think that those voluntarily campaigning on issues they care about have higher standards."
The recently published book has exposed the frustrating saga in simple detail. And the publicity from all the above is perhaps starting to change the balance of where controversy lies. Perhaps more controversy lies in not taking scientifically based regulatory decisions than in taking them.
But until they are taken, while there continues a chance of frustrating the objectives of the Golden Rice project, the antagonism will continue. And despite a solution so close at hand, VAD-induced death and blindness, and the misery of affected families, will continue also.
© The Authors 2019. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”