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 health 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.
Listen to the Episode
Covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new blood test for cancer
- Patches of bacteria can use your sweat to power electronic devices
- Researchers revive organs of dead pigs
- Phone apps detects cancer-causing chemicals in foods
- Stem cells generate "synthetic placentas" in mice
Plus, an honorable mention for early research involving vitamin K and Alzheimer's
The doctor will sniff you now? Well, not on his or her own, but with a device that functions like a superhuman nose. You’ll exhale into a breathalyzer, or a sensor will collect “scent data” from a quick pass over your urine or blood sample. Then, AI software combs through an olfactory database to find patterns in the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) you secreted that match those associated with thousands of VOC disease biomarkers that have been identified and cataloged.
No further biopsy, imaging test or procedures necessary for the diagnosis. According to some scientists, this is how diseases will be detected in the coming years.
All diseases alter the organic compounds found in the body and their odors. Volatolomics is an emerging branch of chemistry that uses the smell of gases emitted by breath, urine, blood, stool, tears or sweat to diagnose disease. When someone is sick, the normal biochemical process is disrupted, and this alters the makeup of the gas, including a change in odor.
“These metabolites show a snapshot of what’s going on with the body,” says Cristina Davis, a biomedical engineer and associate vice chancellor of Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives at the University of California, Davis. This opens the door to diagnosing conditions even before symptoms are present. It’s possible to detect a sweet, fruity smell in the breath of someone with diabetes, for example.
Hippocrates may have been the first to note that people with certain diseases give off an odor but dogs provided the proof of concept. Scientists have published countless studies in which dogs or other high-performing smellers like rodents have identified people with cancer, lung disease or other conditions by smell alone. The brain region that analyzes smells is proportionally about 40 times greater in dogs than in people. The noses of rodents are even more powerful.
Take prostate cancer, which is notoriously difficult to detect accurately with standard medical testing. After sniffing a tiny urine sample, trained dogs were able to pick out prostate cancer in study subjects more than 96 percent of the time, and earlier than a physician could in some cases.
But using dogs as bio-detectors is not practical. It is labor-intensive, complicated and expensive to train dogs to bark or lie down when they smell a certain VOC, explains Bruce Kimball, a chemical ecologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Kimball has trained ferrets to scratch a box when they smell a specific VOC so he knows. The lab animal must be taught to distinguish the VOC from background odors and trained anew for each disease scent.
In the lab of chemical ecologist Bruce Kimball, ferrets were trained to scratch a box when they identified avian flu in mallard ducks.
Glen J. Golden
There are some human super-smellers among us. In 2019, Joy Milne of Scotland proved she could unerringly identify people with Parkinson’s disease from a musky scent emitted from their skin. Clinical testing showed that she could distinguish the odor of Parkinson’s on a worn t-shirt before clinical symptoms even appeared.
Hossam Haick, a professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, maintains that volatolomics is the future of medicine. Misdiagnosis and late detection are huge problems in health care, he says. “A precise and early diagnosis is the starting point of all clinical activities.” Further, this science has the potential to eliminate costly invasive testing or imaging studies and improve outcomes through earlier treatment.
The Nose Knows a Lot
“Volatolomics is not a fringe theory. There is science behind it,” Davis stresses. Every VOC has its own fingerprint, and a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS) uses highly sensitive instruments to separate the molecules of these VOCs to determine their structures. But GCMS can’t discern the telltale patterns of particular diseases, and other technologies to analyze biomarkers have been limited.
We have technology that can see, hear and sense touch but scientists don’t have a handle yet on how smell works. The ability goes beyond picking out a single scent in someone’s breath or blood sample. It’s the totality of the smell—not the smell of a single chemical— which defines a disease. The dog’s brain is able to infer something when they smell a VOC that eludes human analysis so far.
Odor is a complex ecosystem and analyzing a VOC is compounded by other scents in the environment, says Kimball. A person’s diet and use of tobacco or alcohol also will affect the breath. Even fluctuations in humidity and temperature can contaminate a sample.
If successful, a sophisticated AI network can imitate how the dog brain recognizes patterns in smells. Early versions of robot noses have already been developed.
With today’s advances in data mining, AI and machine learning, scientists are trying to create mechanical devices that can draw on algorithms based on GCMS readings and data about diseases that dogs have sniffed out. If successful, a sophisticated AI network can imitate how the dog brain recognizes patterns in smells.
In March, Nano Research published a comprehensive review of volatolomics in health care authored by Haick and seven colleagues. The intent was to bridge gaps in the field for scientists trying to connect the biomarkers and sensor technology needed to develop a robot nose. This paper serves as a reference manual for the field that lists which VOCs are associated with what disease and the biomarkers in skin, saliva, breath, and urine.
Weiwei Wu, one of the co-authors and a professor at Xidian University in China, explains that creating a robotic nose requires the expertise of chemists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, material scientists, and clinicians. These researchers use different terms and methodologies and most have not collaborated before with the other disciplines. “The electrical engineers know the device but they don’t know as much about the biomarkers they need to detect,” Wu offers as an example.
This review is significant, Wu continues, because it can facilitate progress in the field by providing experts in all the disciplines with the basic knowledge needed to create an effective robot nose for diagnostic use. The paper also includes a systematic summary of the research methodology of volatolomics.
Once scientists build a stronger database of VOCs, they can program a device to identify critical patterns of specified diseases on a reliable basis. On a machine learning model, the algorithms automatically get better at diagnosing with each use. Wu envisions further tweaks in the next few years to make the devices smaller and consume less power.
A Whiff of the Future
Early versions of robot noses have already been developed. Some of them use chemical sensors to pick up smells in the breath or other body emission molecules. That data is sent through an electrical signal to a computer network for interpretation and possible linkage to a disease.
This electronic nose, or e-nose, has been successful in small pilot studies at labs around the world. At Ben-Gurion University in Israel, researchers detected breast cancer with electronic gas sensors with 95% accuracy, a higher sensitivity than mammograms. Other robot noses, called p-noses, use photons instead of electrical signals.
The mechanical noses being developed tap different methodologies and analytic techniques which makes it hard to compare them. Plus, the devices are intended for varying uses. One team, for example, is working on an e-nose that can be waved over a plate to screen for the presence of a particular allergen when you’re dining out.
A robot nose could be used as a real-time diagnostic tool in clinical practice. Kimball is working on one such tool that can distinguish between a viral and bacterial infection. This would enable physicians to determine whether an antibiotic prescription is appropriate without waiting for a lab result.
Davis is refining a hand-held device that identifies COVID-19 through a simple breath test. She sees the tool being used at crowded airports, sports stadiums and concert venues where PCR or rapid antigen testing is impractical. Background air samples are collected from the space so that those signals can be removed from the human breath measurement. “[The sensor tool] has the same accuracy as the rapid antigen test kits but exhaled breath is easier to collect,” she notes.
The NaNose, also known as the SniffPhone, uses tiny sensors boosted by AI to distinguish Alzheimer's, Crohn's disease, the early stages of several cancers, and other diseases with 84 to 98 percent accuracy.
Haick named his team’s robot nose, “NaNose,” since it is based on nanotechnology; the prototype is called the SniffPhone. Using tiny sensors boosted by AI, it can distinguish 23 diseases in human subjects with 84 to 98 percent accuracy. This includes early stages of several cancers, Alzheimer’s, tuberculosis and Crohn’s disease. His team has been raising the accuracy level by combining biomarker signals from both breath and skin, for example. The goal is to achieve 99.9 percent accuracy consistently so no other diagnostic tests would be needed before treating the patient. Plus, it will be affordable, he says.
Kimball predicts we’ll be seeing these diagnostic tools in the next decade. “The physician would narrow down what [the diagnosis] might be and then get the correct tool,” he says. Others are envisioning one device that can screen for multiple diseases by programming the software, which would be updated regularly with new findings.
Larger volatolomics studies must be conducted before these e-noses are ready for clinical use, however. Experts also need to learn how to establish normal reference ranges for e-nose readings to support clinicians using the tool.
“Taking successful prototypes from the lab to industry is the challenge,” says Haick, ticking off issues like reproducibility, mass production and regulation. But volatolomics researchers are unanimous in believing the future of health care is so close they can smell it.