Thursday, September 27, 2012
A salute to "World Milksharing Week" September 24-30
"There is serious concern that some of these artificial recombinant DNA molecules could prove biologically hazardous. One potential hazard in current experiments derives from the need to use a bacterium like E. coli to clone the recombinant DNA molecules and to amplify their number. Strains of E. coli commonly reside in the human intestinal tract, and they are capable of exchanging genetic information with other types of bacteria, some of which are pathogenic to man. Thus, new DNA elements introduced into E. coli might possibly become widely disseminated among human, bacterial, plant, or animal populations with unpredictable effects."
The Paul Berg letter in "Science" 1974
Is this a hint of things to come, the darkening shadows being played out in our science fictionalized world? Or did the Asilomar Conference in 1975 resolve this situation by letting the scientists themselves self-regulate the dangers of this new science. Never before had scientists come together and proposed a year long moratorium on research. But when that year long moratorium ended, did the hazards of genetic engineering subside? Does self-regulation of such a science create safety or open the door to a variety of dangers. Those dangers go unrecognized in a society in which the word genetic engineering is considered a dirty word. Instead we talk about food products that were synthetically produced. Not saying that dirty word in public means it doesn't exist. No questions can be asked. How can you question something that doesn't exist?
Genetic engineering has its beginnings in the cellular manipulation of pathogens. E. coli was often the pathogen of choice because it was considered a benign bacterium. Some guidelines were put in place by the NIH in which some recombinant DNA experiments were prohibited. But it seems that over time anyone critical of genetic engineering or its direction found themselves out of work. Not surprising is the fact that industry jumped into this new science, particularly Monsanto. Genetic engineering had broad applications not only in food technology but in the medical field. Antibody testing (vaccination, drugs are other products) is one of the products of genetic engineering. The fast sometimes erroneous results we get regarding the current disease-of-the-month is because our medical testing kits are based on genetic engineering. Yes, you are positive for MRSA (or it could be HIV or Hepatitis C)...the new testing kit proves without a doubt that you are contagious and very sick. Wait, two days later you aren't positive for MRSA. How about your vitamin D levels--test kits are genetically engineered. Funny, how everyone believes in the infallibility of the test. They are told they are low in vitamin D. How do they know this, the test kit tells them so. Yes it was genetically engineered just for you! Its always interesting to listen to conversations in doctors offices. There is something magical about going to the doctor. Its a religious experience because if the person in the white coat says that you have whatever disease because of test so and so, we believe. Most of us never question our doctor, and would never consider questioning the test. Well, your belief is based on the infallibility of genetic engineering, when your blood is tested for diseases.
I have a hard time believing that genetic engineering is infallible. Or that scientists can self-regulate this science safely. We are after all human not gods. We make mistakes, even PhDs. In fact I would say we learn more by our mistakes. But our industry and our governments have placed their bets on the side of self-regulation. The food industry in particular has an enormous impact on our health and well-being as well as our financial state. Food is a necessity and it takes a big bite out of our budget on a weekly basis. Infant formula is an expensive product. Infants who are formula fed do not have immune protection. They are more likely to get sick and be hospitalized unlike the breastfed infant. So one needs to factor in not only the fact that the product is costly but it is also medically costly.
The recognition that infant formula is deficient in building immunity has created the need for creating a safer infant formula. Human milk research became the answer to creating a safer infant formula. Genetically engineering human milk components in bacteria is believed to create a better infant formula.
A recent patent application entitled, "Biosynthesis of Human Milk Oligosaccharides in Engineered Bacteria," by the company Glycosyn LLC has a long list of pathogens in which to create their "synthetic" human milk oligosaccharide.
"The invention described herein details the manipulation of genes and pathways within bacteria such as the enterobacterium Escherichia coli K12 (E. coli) or probiotic bacteria leading to high level synthesis of HMOS. A variety of bacterial species may be used in the oligosaccharide biosynthesis methods, for example Erwinia herbicola (Pantoea agglomerans), Citrobacter freundii, Pantoea citrea, Pectobacterium carotovorum, or Xanthomonas campestris. Bacteria of the genus Bacillus may also be used, including Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus licheniformis, Bacillus coagulans, Bacillus thermophilus, Bacillus laterosporus, Bacillus megaterium, Bacillus mycoides, Bacillus pumilus, Bacillus lentus, Bacillus cereus, and Bacillus circulans. Similarly, bacteria of the genera Lactobacillus and Lactococcus may be modified using the methods of this invention, including but not limited to Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus salivarius, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus crispatus, Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus jensenii, and Lactococcus lactis. Streptococcus thermophiles and Proprionibacterium freudenreichii are also suitable bacterial species for the invention described herein. Also included as part of this invention are strains, modified as described here, from the genera Enterococcus (e.g., Enterococcus faecium and Enterococcus thermophiles), Bifidobacterium (e.g., Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium infantis, and Bifidobacterium bifidum), Sporolactobacillus spp., Micromomospora spp., Micrococcus spp., Rhodococcus spp., and Pseudomonas (e.g., Pseudomonas fluorescens and Pseudomonas aeruginosa). Bacteria comprising the characteristics described herein are cultured in the presence of lactose, and a fucosylated oligosaccharide is retrieved, either from the bacterium itself or from a culture supernatant of the bacterium. The fucosylated oligosaccharide is purified for use in therapeutic or nutritional products, or the bacteria are used directly in such products."
Pick a bacteria, any bacteria and we will create a human milk component that will make infant formula safer. I noticed one of the bacterium listed is Bacillus cereus, a well known food poison. So you and I must trust that using these pathogens is safe and the toxins that would normally be produced have been disabled. This process of making human milk oligosaccharides in bacteria is not new. I found a paper written in Glycobiology in 2002 entitled, "A new fermentation process allows large-scale production of human milk oligosaccharides by metabolically engineered bacteria." So the process has been known for over a decade but I am wonder about how much studying has been done on the safety of this in regard to infant formula. And then I wonder about this company, Glycosyn, that is based in Massachusetts whose advisory board includes some well known human milk researchers, David S. Newburg (who is on the editorial board of Breastfeeding Medicine and was on the HMBANA advisory board for almost a decade) and Ardythe L. Morrow. Human milk research is connected to the infant formula industry because we seem to be obligated to use human milk components as the gold standard in which to create a better infant formula. This science is using genetic engineering to create these substances for the infant formula industry.
This week we celebrate World Milksharing Week. I salute the women who donate their milk. They donate to help mothers feed their babies. They help babies survive because of the wondrous properties of human milk. My only wish would be that these mothers understand that some of their donations are about helping the infant formula industry make a better infant formula. And maybe that is a good thing. And then maybe it is not a good thing. My fear has been that we don't have a long-term safety record of this technology we are employing to create imitation human milk components. Breastfeeding has a long-term track record. It saved babies for thousands of years. Designing baby milks based on human milk is a complement to the value of human milk. After all it is considered the gold standard. But fermenting and genetically manipulating bacteria to create our "synthetic" human milk components creates enormous questions of safety in my mind. Why are we so willing to genetically engineer human milk rather than work to create a society that promotes and protects breastfeeding?
Copyright 2012 Valerie W. McClain