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.
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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:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.