GM crops that produce industrial products could be grown in Britain for first time

Crops which have been genetically modified so they produce industrial products could be grown in Britain for the first time after scientists applied for permission to the government to start field trials.

Rothamsted Research, which is based in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, wants to plant GM camelina with altered DNA so that it produces ‘wax esters’, a natural lubricant which can be used instead of petrochemicals to keep machinery running smoothly.

Until now the company has only planted GM crops which could be used for human consumption, such as camelina with extra Omega-3 fish oil to boost health, or wheat altered to produce higher yields.

But the company said it now planned to use camelina as a ‘chassis’ to make useful lipids, or fatty acids, which can provide alternatives for chemicals in a range of industrial applications.

However campaigners said the outdoor trials in Hertfordshire and Suffolk, represented an ‘unacceptable risk’ to ‘people, wildlife and the wider environment.’

Twenty-six organisations including farmers, scientists, retailers and environmentalists have lodged a formal objection to Defra, asking them to refuse permission for trial, warning that pollen or seeds could escape and lead to other plants growing wax esters, which are harmful to humans.

 Liz O’Neill, director of umbrella group GM Freeze: “Rothamsted Research started off trying to persuade us that GM camelina would save the oceans but now they’re referring to it as a ‘chassis’ on which they will produce an array of industrial compounds.

“GM Freeze wants to help create a world in which everyone’s food is produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably. This trial would be a step in the opposite direction and should not go ahead.”

Rothamsted, which has been genetically altering plants for 15 years, submitted its application in February and objections can be lodged until April 8, with a final decision expected from Defra by the end of May.

The company said it hoped to begin planting this year, and complete their trial by 2020.

Professor Jonathan Napier who is leading the trial said: “We have synthesised the gene sequences involved in the production of omega-3s and other useful compounds, such as astaxanthin and wax esters, and optimised them to be functional in camelina plants.

“These synthetic sequences are based on the sequence of genes found in a range of different organisms, including photosynthetic marine organisms and other lower eukaryote species, such as mosses and oomycetes.

“By using transgenic camelina as a chassis to make these useful lipids, we have an alternative source for them.”

As well as the wax esters and Omega-3 alterations the plants will also be genetically altered to increase the thickness of their stems and improve photosynthesis, to boost crop yields.

Rothamsted said if the trials go ahead they would be closely monitored by Defra and its independent advisory committee and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).

There will also be regular inspections, carried out by the Genetic Modification Inspectorate, which is part of the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency.

But campaigners said there was a significant amount of information that is missing from the company’s application to Defra, including technical details of the genetic modifications themselves and any assessment of the potential impact on farms already growing non-GM camelina in the UK.

Rothamsted has also provided no details of what the wax ester lubricant could specifically be used for.

 -Written by Sarah Knapton in The Telegraph. See original article link here.

European court sides with Italian farmer pushing GM crops

BRUSSELS—The European Union court ruled on Wednesday in favor of an Italian activist farmer who has defied his nation’s laws by planting genetically modified (GM) corn.

In Photo: In this August 10, 2010, photo, Giorgio Fidenato holds a raw ear of genetically modified yellow corn at his office in Pordenone, northern Italy. The European Union Court of Justice has ruled on Wednesday in favor of Italian activist farmer Fidenato.

Italy has prosecuted Giorgio Fidenato for cultivating the corn on his land, citing concerns the crops could endanger human health.

But the European Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that a member-state, such as Italy, does not have the right to ban GM crops, given that there is no scientific reason for doing so. It noted the European Commission in 1998 authorized the use of the specific maize seeds Fidenato planted, finding “no reason to believe that that product would have any adverse effects on human health or theenvironment”.

Fidenato, whose fields lie in Pordenone, northeastern Italy, became persuaded of the benefits of genetically altered crops during a visit to the United States in the 1990s, seeing that they require fewer chemicals than traditional crops and produce higher yields and profits.

But he has faced huge opposition in Italy, where many are fearful that genetically altered foods are less natural than traditional crops and could be dangerous. He has faced both fines from the government and the wrath of anti-GM activists who have destroyed his crops.

The current case dates to 2013, when Italy asked the European Commission to adopt emergency measures prohibiting the planting of the seeds, which are produced by US company Monsanto, on the basis of Italian scientific studies.

But the commission disputed the Italian studies, citing a scientific opinion by the European Food Safety Authority that there was “no new science-based evidence” that the seeds could be dangerous.

The Italian government nonetheless went ahead with a decree prohibiting the cultivation of the corn, and prosecuted Fidenato and other farmers who planted their fields with the corn in defiance.

After the ruling Fidenato expressed satisfaction with the decision, saying he and the other farmers involved in the suit finally feel as if “justice is on our side”.

Image Credits: AP Photo/Paolo Giovannini, File

-Written by Associate Press and published in Business Mirror.  See original article link here.

EFSA okays GM bacteria as feed supplement

French Ajinomoto Eurolysine SAS, part of the world leading producer of amino acids by fermentation, has received a positive safety assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for use of freeze-dried genetically modified E. coli bacteria as a feedstuff supplement.

There are no risks for human and animal health or the environment from this biomass regarding the genetic modification of the strain, the EFSA Panel on Additives and Products or Substances used in Animal Feed (FEEDAP) concluded. According to the panel, the E.coli strain PT73, which was engineered to overproduce the essential amino acid threonine by Ajinomoto, may be used as a feed material for pigs, ruminants and salmonids.

The heat-inactivated  gram-negative GM bacterial strain does not contain any full-length antibiotic resistance genes or other sequences of concern (EJ, doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2017.4936). However, the panel said that toxicological data indicate effects of PT73 on blood coagulation and liver, which the EFSA considers to be adverse. As a consequence, the panel did not conclude on the safety for the consumer of products derived from animals receiving feed containing PT73. Based on data analyses, the FEEDAP panel recommends a daily supplementation of feed dry matter with 8% for dairy cows, 10% PT73 for fattening of pigs and 13% PT73 for salmonids as safe.

PT73 should be considered as a potential skin and respiratory sensitiser. Moreover, any exposure to dust from the product via the inhalation route should be considered a serious risk. The FEEDAP Panel also considered that substitution of PT73 for other protein-rich feed materials will not adversely affect the environment.

-Published in European Biotechnology.  See original article link here

German biotech on the rise

The Biotechnology in Germany is a growth engine. According to a new report, all key figures such as employees, turnover and R&D expenditure were at an all-time high in 2016.

In terms of key economic factors, 2016 was the best year for the German biotech sector ever. According to the company survey, which Berlin-based information specialist BIOCOM AG conducts annually based on the biotech indicators of the organisation for economic cooperation and development (OECD) for more than ten years, the generated turnover of the German biotech sector for the third year exceeded €3bn. In 2016, total figures increased by 8% to €3.54bn compared to the year before.

 

Key figures with all-time high

Further upswing has been observed regarding spending on research and development (R&D). For the second time since 2010, the innovation budget cracked the one billion euro mark (+6.3%) and now stands at €1.1bn (2015: €1.04m). With a total of 20,280 (2015: 19,010), there were more employees than ever before working in biotech companies that are occupied wholly or predominantly with modern biotechnological methods. The total number of these companies rose to 615 (2015: 593). Thereby, the following figures and conclusions relate only to the ‘dedicated’ biotechnology companies, as defined by the OECD.

Stable financing situation

The financial situation also mirrors a sustainable positive trend over the last years: in 2016, around €505m was invested in German biotech companies, which did not reach the record levels of 2015 (€550m), but still is a high amount of money compared to previous years. The majority of the money was spent in public companies (€258m, +5%). With bioeconomy pioneer BRAIN AG, the first biotech IPO since 2007 took place at the German stock exchange in Frankfurt. Total numbers of listed German biotech companies increased to 21. Among them are five firms that are listed on a foreign stock exchange. In 2016, Berlin-based Noxxon Pharma choose that way, too, and went public on Euronext in Paris.

Interest of big pharma and the crowd

A closer look into the financings of the private firms, which secured a total of €216m in 2016, reveals that despite overall lower levels (-17%) than in 2015, a lot of double-digit rounds were raised. Foreign investors participated in eight of the 21 private financing rounds, demonstrating that German companies are able to attract high levels of interest. In addition, two crowdfunding campaigns for biotech companies took place in 2016. Some major multimillion euros licensing deals, such as BioNTech with Genentech (€278m), or Medigene with Bluebird Bio (€917m), or Proteros with MSD (€157m), further support the theory that German firms are quite attractive from an international point of view.

Record employee numbers

There is sustained interest in biotechnological processes and services from big business. This is confirmed by a consistently high number of companies in which biotechnology represents only one aspect of business. In 2016, the category of ‘other biotechnology-active companies’ comprised a total of 137 companies (2015: 133). These included both pharmaceutical and chemical companies focused on innovative biotechnological processes as well as companies from the areas of environment, waste management, energy and agriculture. In 2016, a total of 22,000 people were employed in the biotechnology-oriented areas of such companies. Compared to the previous year (2015: 20,250), this represents a growth of 8.6%. For the first time, total headcount in commercial biotechnology increased above the 40,000 mark to 42,280 (+7,7%).

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-Written by Sandra Wirsching in European Biotechnology website.  See original article link here.

Biotechnology: Why does Europe lag behind the US?

US had first-mover advantage, blockbuster drugs appeared soon, and the industry scaled up, writes Sir Geoffrey Owen

Of all the new technologies that have emerged since the Second World War, biotechnology is notable in the extent to which US-based firms, having taken the lead at the start, continue to dominate the world market. Why has it been so difficult for other countries to catch up?

Biotechnology in this context refers to a set of techniques, based on advances in molecular biology, genetics and immunology, which came to the fore in the 1970s. They opened up new approaches to drug discovery that were radically different from the chemistry-based methods on which the pharmaceutical industry mostly relied. Partly because of its novelty, the established pharma companies were slow to appreciate the importance of biotechnology, and left the field open to new entrants.

European scientists had been responsible for several of the discoveries which paved the way for new commercial opportunities. But American entrepreneurs were much quicker to exploit the new techniques than their European counterparts. The most successful of the pioneers, Genentech, was founded in 1976 and launched its first drug, a genetically engineered version of insulin, in 1982. It was followed by a host of imitators, many of which listed their shares on the stock market.

The success of these firms owed a great deal to the ingenuity and vision of their founders, but the US had other advantages which supported the growth of the sector. Biomedical research was funded on a very large scale by the Federal government, contributing both to advances in knowledge and to the supply of well-trained scientists. American universities were well equipped, especially after the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, for transferring the results of academic research into industry. The US had a venture capital industry which had experience in nurturing early-stage firms, especially in electronics, and could apply the same skills to biotechnology. The safety and efficacy of new drugs were regulated in the same way as in Europe, but there were no government controls over prices; the US market was not only much larger than any single European country, but also more rewarding for innovators.

Among European countries the UK seemed well equipped to follow the US lead, not least because of its strength in biomedical research. A missing ingredient was venture capital, and that was part of the rationale for using public funds to support the establishment of Celltech, the UK’s first biotech firm, in 1980. But Celltech was soon followed by a stream of wholly private-sector firms, and by the mid-1990s a sizeable biotech sector, well supported by local investors, was taking shape. Then came a series of setbacks, as failures in clinical trials exposed the over-optimism of some of the most highly valued firms. The result was an investor retreat. From the early 2000s the inflow of capital dried up, and several of the best firms either were acquired or moved to the US. Despite a partial recovery in 2014 and 2015, the gap between the US and the UK is probably wider today than it was at as the start of the new millennium.

Some observers believe that the failure of UK biotech to build on its apparently promising start was due to short-termism, the reluctance of institutional investors to back high-risk, science-based firms whose research may not pay off for ten years or more. Yet countries such as Germany which have a more patient, long-term approach to the financing of companies have been no more successful than the UK in biotechnology. The lag behind the US is a European, not a purely British phenomenon.

How did the US do so well? First-mover advantage is part of the answer, coupled with the fact that (alongside numerous failures) several of the pioneers produced blockbuster drugs within very few years of their foundation. These star performers attracted investor support to what came to be a seen as a high-risk but potentially high-reward business. As more scientist-entrepreneurs entered the market, the increasing size and sophistication of the investor community committed to biotech meant that promising firms could access capital on a scale that was not available in Europe.

The sheer scale of the US biotech sector, much of it being concentrated in Boston and San Francisco, is a huge competitive advantage, and there are other features of the US health care system which are difficult or impossible for European countries to imitate. For example, there is no way in which the European Union, with or without the UK, can match the amount spent by the US National Institutes of Health on biomedical research. Nor, given the determination of European governments to keep control of their national health care arrangements, is there is any possibility of a genuinely integrated European market for medicines, let alone one in which drug companies have the same pricing freedom as in the US. Even if that freedom is curtailed under the next US administration, American leadership in biotechnology is unlikely to be seriously challenged.

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Notes:

This post appeared originally at the LSE Department of Management’s blog, and is based on the author’s book Science, the State and the City: Britain’s struggle to succeed in biotechnology (2016) co-authored with Michael Hopkins.
The post gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.

Sir Geoffrey Owen is a visiting professor in the Department of Management. Before joining the department he was a deputy editor of the Financial Times and a non-executive director of Laird Group. He was knighted in 1989. He is the author of three books – “The rise and fall of great companies: Courtaulds and the reshaping of the man-made fibres industry”, “Industry in the USA” and “From Empire to Europe: the decline and revival of British industry since the second world war.” He has contributed to several management journals.

Written by Geoffrey Owen in The London School of Economics and Political Science.  See article link here.