Today we are going to discuss the interesting GMOs outside the food industry. Let me know in the comment section how many of these examples you knew already and what was the most surprising one.
- GMO cancer drug
Genetically modified monoclonal antibody (monoclonal – produced by a single ‘parent’ stem cell, which have the same affinity to recognised antigen) was created in order to fight malignant colorectal cancer (1), lung cancer, breast cancer, renal cancers and age-related eye disease. It’s worth noting that colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in women and third in men. This modified antibody bears a fancy name Bevacizumab (Avastin being a trade name) and was designed to target cancer cells directly. This had an advantage over traditional chemotherapy drug because it would not destroy all human cells but only the cancerous ones. The clinical trials has shown that even if the drug extends the lifespan of the patients it does not lower the mortality rate. It is now used only in addition to chemotherapy to decrease the toxicity of cytotoxic drugs. Nevertheless, Avastin works wonders as eye disease treatment, thus is very popularly used by ophthalmologists.
Fun fact: any drug ending with -zumab is a human monoclonal antibody!
2. Ebola vaccine
Everyone remembers the outbreak of Ebola virus in 2014. A year later scientists created a triple-chimeric monoclonal antibody which would bind to three different epitopes of Ebola virus (the molecules sticking out on the virus’s surface informing our organism that it is of a foreign origin). The antibodies would bind to the virus signalling to our immune system “we have caught it, now you can kill it!” (2). The clinical trials are still undergoing because drug development process is a long one. So far, the estimated risk of death when contracting Ebola after vaccination is 40% lower than in non-vaccinated individuals, which is a very good score for initial tests.
3. Human insulin
Type 1 diabetics don’t produce enough insulin (hormone which regulates blood sugar levels) so they have to inject themselves with it. Until 1980s the main source of insulin was pig’s or cow’s pancreas. The problem was that bovine or porcine insulin is only similar to the human one but not exactly the same. In effect, some individuals were not reacting well to it. GMO approach was to make an ideally-matched human insulin hormone. How? By taking human insulin gene and adding it to a bacterium DNA. Modified bacteria grow in a tank producing insulin like any other protein encoded in their genome. Afterwards, scientists harvest the hormone, purify it and prepare for injections. Voilà! (3)
4. Blood production
Last year I’ve read an article on GM bacteria producing human blood and… I didn’t bookmark it. I was searching web in order to find it and in result I found something even better. Blood-producing rice. Yes, r i c e.
The number of donors is constantly falling and the need for screening the blood against HIV virus and hepatitis decreases the efficiency of the process. Blood shortages are problems on a global scale, thus scientists try to find ways of producing human blood, so the donations won’t be the only source of this extremely scarce and life-saving liquid.
Very often patients don’t need all blood components but only serum albumin – the most common protein in blood plasma produced in liver in order to detoxify blood and carry hormones or microelements around the body. It is given to patients via IV line after surgeries, dialysis, organ failures or severe infections. It is also used in pharmaceutical industry as a supplement in vaccine production or other drugs. The new transgenic rice allows for a mass production of human serum albumin. It was already tested on rats and showed no adverse reactions. In future, it could be possible to grow plants producing more human blood proteins to enrich the artificial blood production. Sounds like a good blood alternative! (4, 5, 6)
Bonus info: Scientists try to use red blood cells as drugs carriers: more here!
5. Vitamin supplements
If you think that your diet is GMO-free (which I hope you are not!) you may be surprised that most of the vitamin supplements are indeed originating from genetically modified organisms. Most of the vitamins are produced either by GM plants or bacteria. There is nothing wrong with it, so do not waste your time on searching the non-GMO labels on your supplements.
6. Hornless cows (!)
Statistically: five Britons and twenty-five Americans a year are killed by cows. 75% of the deaths were the results of deliberate attacks of a cow with their horns. This what makes cows the deadliest farm animals. The horns are not only dangerous for humans but also cause injuries to the cows while they interact with each other. Removing horns from adult cows would be a brutal, painful process which should be avoided. Genetically modified cows have no horns, which make the farming safer. There used to be only a handful of species of hornless cows but now scientists can apply ‘hornlessness’ gene to any cow providing a humane way of removing the horns(7). Good stuff making poor cows suffer less (and saving few Britons lives)!
And the most exciting one:
7. Saving endangered species
Conservation biologists claim that up to 40% of living species will be extinct by 2050 as a result of climate change. The change in the environment happens way too fast for evolution to catch up. One way to prevent this from happening would be to isolate specific survival genes from well-adapted species and incorporate them into the genomes of threatened species individuals increasing their chance for survival. Second would be to identify and use the more adapted allele of the adaptation genes and transfer them into other individuals of the same species creating a more adapted population. Both strategies involve gene editing techniques and we face the time when it is worth considering the pros and cons of interfering into natural evolution processes. (8) This week world’s last male White Northern Rhino died leaving two females who can only form sub-species with other rhino males. Could GMO approach save White Rhinos and many other species from extinction?
If you feel like my series helped you to understand GMOs in more depth, don’t be shy and share this knowledge with others. Chose at least one friend or family member and send her or him the link to this post.
It’s time to show-off your knowledge 🤓