Will European opposition to GM foods slow biomedical advances?

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New genetically modified bacteria might be able to relieve celiac sufferers from inflammatory symptoms if they accidentally eat gluten. But researchers worry that the proposed treatment, still in development, might face approval hurdles in the European Union if the widespread public opposition to genetic modification in foods extends to biomedicine.

A recent study by scientists from France, Canada and Switzerland showed that the inflammatory symptoms associated with celiac disease were reduced in gluten intolerant mice after they administered elafin, a human protein, via GM bacteria. Their findings were reported in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in April.

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Sufferers experience painful inflammation that damages their small intestine linings and prevents nutrient absorption when they consume gluten. Nearly 1 in 100 people in the United States are affected. Currently, there is no treatment and sufferers have to stick to a strict gluten-free diet.

The study found that celiac sufferers have less elafin, a human protein, in their gut compared to non-sufferers. The elafin can interact with the enzymes responsible for the abnormal breakdown of gluten that leads to inflammation, which can reduce gluten toxicity for celiac sufferers.

The researchers engineered Lactococcus lactis, a harmless lactic bacterium commonly found in food like buttermilk and cheese, to produce elafin. According to Philippe Langella, research director at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research who was involved in the study, using genetically modified bacteria is the best method to deliver elafin to the human gut.

“It’s probably the most convenient, it’s very easy to produce using local production,” he said. “The delivery, importantly, will be at the site of inflammation. Compared to, for example, an oral administration of elafin which would be difficult to produce and difficult to protect from the stress in the gastric tract.”

However, the scientists expressed concern about whether they will be able to continue research into the treatment procedure in human trials, particularly in Europe where GMO regulations are strict. “Now, what we have to do is convince the European Food Safety Authority to allow us to do a technical human trial and for this, it’s a bit difficult as we are using GMOs,” Langella said.

The European Union has among the most stringent regulations of genetically modified foods in the world, partly because of widespread public opposition to GMOs. European Union politicians have come under increasing criticism by farmers and scientists for the right restrictions that they have imposed on biotech research. Scientists like Langella are concerned that the anti-GMO fever now gripping Europe could impact drug and medical research.

In 2010, the Turkish parliament moved to restrict the use of all transgenic organisms within the country – including those used in biomedical research. Originally intended to be a response to popular distrust of GMOs in agriculture, the law morphed into one that prohibited even the generation of genetically modified microorganisms, making research impractical.

The use of genetically modified bacteria expressing elafin to treat digestive diseases isn’t new. In 2012, another group of French scientists found that biotech bacteria can reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) when administered to mice. Langella noted that many people with IBD were already interested in human trials for that treatment.

As celiac disease is currently incurable, any potential solution, GMO or not, should be allowed to reach celiac sufferers, Langella said.

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