Viewpoint: How my cancer treatment turned me into a living, breathing GMO

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I am a GMO (genetically modified organism.) That is the reason I’m alive and writing this essay. Several years ago I had several serious bumps on my head, which turned out to be active melanoma tumors. My doctors sent me in for scans and they located several additional tumors in my lungs. The prognosis was stage four malignant cancer. The doctors consulted and presented me with alternative treatments; one was a new clinical trial involving a GMO virus called T-Vec.

Having spent years teaching biology, chemistry and genetics, I asked for an explanation. Simply it involved a herpes virus that had been genetically modified; the genes that cause cold sores were removed, and a gene that causes the virus to replicate inside malignant melanoma cells was inserted into the virus. A second gene, which stimulates the production of T-cells — white cells — the body’s fighters, was also inserted into the viruses.

Steve Clark

The viruses were injected into the tumors on my scalp. They replicated inside the cancer cells until the cells burst and released hundreds of new viruses to enter and destroy other malignant cells. When the cancer cells broke open, the cancer causing DNA was exposed to T-cells, which also replicated. Then I had both special cancer killing viruses and T- cells traveling throughout my body. The bumps on my head where they injected the GMO virus went down quickly, and months later the tumors in my lungs shrank and with time disappeared.

Many years earlier, in the early 1960s I was in a college biochemistry class in Durango listening to a young chemist (Dr. Sid Cohen) explaining how this molecule that controls heredity was configured. It was exciting and new.  Weeks later I was doing my best to describe DNA to family friends (the Foggs) who are apple farmers in Cedaredge, CO. Their response was to reward me with a project: bud grafting tiny apple trees which involved lying flat on the ground facing a row of little apple trees that would provide excellent roots and a twig of buds from the desired fruit apple trees. I had to cut to the cambium in a T shape, peel this open and slip in the desired bud.  This was an interesting challenge with a “tree” about the diameter of a pencil. The tough part was wrapping and tying the two together with rubber band fragments.  My task was putting together two types of apple trees, with different DNA, in order to produce a tree with strong roots and excellent fruit. Although my project was not genetic engineering understanding how this was working on a molecular level was exciting.

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Now I’m waiting with my apple corer to put peanut butter on apple wedges from a non-browning arctic Honeycrisp apple. In “arctic” apples the gene that causes browning is blocked. They are an example of the new GMOs that are designed with the consumer in mind.

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Many of the original GMO plants were designed to benefit farmers – which is great – but they are only 2% of the population. Now we are getting new GMO products into grocery stores that will expose thousands of consumers to the positive aspects of GMOs; potatoes that don’t bruise; cooking oils with Omega-3s and reduced saturated fats; gluten free wheat; increased antioxidants in fruits; rice and bananas that produce high amounts of Vitamin A to prevent childhood blindness; fresh papaya and my non-browning “arctic” apples are good examples.

Whether in cancer cells or apples, GMOs are improving lives.

I’m very happy to be a living GMO.


Steve Clark is a former biology, chemistry and genetics teacher

This article originally ran at The Fence Post as “I’m a GMO” and has been republished here with permission.

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