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Posts Tagged ‘genetic engineering’

Stem Cells - Potential, promises and problems

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Storme Sen

Scientific and technological advances have propelled mankind into the modern era whether confronting us with new weapons of war that kill thousands or medical discoveries that save thousands. Scientists almost always start out with good intentions, but the question is what the end product will be used for, and if the end justifies the means. Alfred Nobel (patron of the celebrated Nobel Prizes) created the explosive, dynamite, which was later used in warfare and killed his brother on the battlefield. From then on he dedicated his life towards peace. Adolf Hitler’s scientists performed horrific experiments on the prisoners at concentration camps- is it morally acceptable that we use the information that they discovered? How far should we go in our quest for knowledge?

At Youth Parliament 2007 in Wellington, New Zealand, a select committee of Youth MPs gathered to discuss whether therapeutic cloning of stem cells should be allowed in their country. There was a range of different viewpoints on this issue represented at the select committee- such as those held by the Bioethics Council, the Nathaniel Centre (a catholic bioethics centre) and the Ministry of Health.

Stem cells
Stem CellsThe latest biological controversy is over stem cells and the process of therapeutic cloning. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells, cells that are not specialized yet into specific types such as skin cells. They are able to transform into any type of cell given the correct stimulation. Hence, these cells have the potential to repair damaged tissue and develop treatments for diseases such as chronic heart disease, Parkinson’s, and type I diabetes. These remarkable cells are located in the early embryo, the foetus, the placenta and in some mature tissues and organs throughout the body. The most recent discovery, in February 2007, by researchers from Auckland University in New Zealand and the Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden, revealed that stem cells can also be located in a certain area of the brain. Stem cells have the potential to revolutionize medical treatments; however, the obvious problem is that they are in hard to reach places.

The Controversy

Is it ethical to use embryos in scientific research?

Stem Cell2Embryonic stem cells are the easiest cells to isolate and manipulate. Unlike adult stem cells they are able to evolve into any other type of cell whereas an adult stem cell is limited in the cells it may transform into. For example, the stem cells found in a part of the brain can only change into different types of neurons. To discover the true potential of stem cells further research is needed and this would require a steady supply of them, indeed, much of the breakthrough research we have to date was performed on aborted foetuses and surplus IVF (in vitro fertilization) embryos.

The other issue lies around the concept of cloning. Therapeutic cloning is often mistaken for embryo cloning, when in fact embryos are not being cloned at all. Genetic material is taken from a cell in an adult’s body and fused with an empty egg cell. With the correct stimulation the new cell is able to grow into an embryo. The stem cells can then be harvested from the embryo for use in treatments or research. They do not intend to recreate life, but to create life-saving cells.

The Cons

Some people do not feel therapeutic stem cell cloning is ethical, and abortion itself is a controversial topic for many. There has been no therapeutic stem cell cloning in New Zealand thus far and the representatives from the Nathaniel Centre were adamant that it should stay that way. They expressed nothing but contempt for the idea of producing an embryo for the sole purpose of extracting a bunch a cells from it then destroying it, arguing that “it is a scientific fact that life begins from conception”. This in itself is a disputed argument, with a lot of disagreement about the moment an embryo is considered a human being. While those against therapeutic stem cell cloning argue for “the dignity of human life” others believe that aborted embryos or surplus IVF embryos (of which there are currently 5000-7000 and the maximum number of years they can be stored in New Zealand is ten) should be utilised instead of simply being destroyed.

Another concern was about where this sort of research is leading us? MoRST (the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology) assured the committee that any scientific exploits were monitored under strict regulations, however, what is to stop a rogue scientist from toying with nature? Could we be heading to the point of human cloning, many people’s worst fear, where we will be selecting genes to produce perfect individuals?

The Pros

SurgeryEmbryonic stem cells are thought by most scientists and researchers to hold amazing potential for finding cures for spinal cord injuries, cancer, heart disease, hundreds of rare immune system and genetic disorders and much more.

The huge advantage of the process of therapeutic stem cell cloning is that the genetic material of the stem cells and the patient are the same, so that there is no danger of rejection by the patient’s immune system. Currently, for example, when an organ is transplanted into a patient, that patient has to take strong immune suppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.

The Future

LabWhile stem cells hold tremendous potential, and there have been many promises made, the fact remains that this potential is far from being realised. There are many technical and ethical barriers to consider before stem cell based therapies become a reality.

While some members of the select committee at Youth Parliament believed that this sort of research is important for our continued scientific advancement, others felt that allowing therapeutic cloning in New Zealand might taint the clean and green natural image the country has and undermine New Zealand’s reputation of taking a strong stance in controversial areas like G.E. and nuclear power.

Currently, the therapeutic cloning of stem cells is permitted in Belgium, the UK and Sweden. Whether or not it will be permitted in New Zealand is yet to be seen, however, the select committee at Youth Parliament concluded that if stem cell research should only be allowed using surplus IVF embryos or aborted fetuses. The committee is also hopeful that soon scientists will find a way to manipulate adult stem cells to changing into any type of cell, which would nullify the use of embryonic stem cells.

Learn More:

Take Action

  • Get in contact with, or try and organise a class trip to, Auckland University’s Liggins Institute. This is the main place in Aotearoa New Zealand for research concerning embryos etc.
  • Interested in issues around bioethics? The RSNZ in association with Bioethics Council and the New Zealand Organisation of Rare Disorders run a yearly essay competition (with prizes!) on different ethical issues of biology
  • Organise a debate in class where you explore both sides of the issue.

The Future of Food - Review

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

By Lena Stahlschmidtfutureoffood_photo

The information that the film presents is so interesting and terrifying that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Although the format is what some may call a little dry’ the movie had my full attention the entire time. This is the type of film that you’d expect to see in class; educational, informative and no Hollywood action scenes’.

The movie presents food in the 21st century: the way we grow it, the way we mess with it and the current corruption, deceit, and dangers that exist. It also gives an even dimmer outlook of our planet’s future related to food. The movie looks at the many aspects of genetic engineering ranging from the cellular make-up to its global impact. The main focus is on the lack of studies, precautions, and knowledge about the effects of GE and the role that the American government and agriculture companies played in the development of GE food.

It is a documentation of corruption, deceit, money, and power that has lead to our generation being the guinea pig in the fight for the global control over food. The issues raised in this movie are crucial to the sustainability of our planet and existence.

Stars: 4 ****

Find out more.
Learn more about where New Zealand stands in genetic engineering Here is what another Just Focus members had to say.

Take Action!!!

Food Altert.

The Campaign

Greens

NZ trying to force GE on the world?

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

Cameron Walker

barley fieldNew Zealand nearly became the only country of the 132 nations who are party to the Cartagena Protocol to block an agreement on labeling GE organisms traded between nations. The Protocol is an international agreement that allows nations to decide whether to regulate the introduction and trade of genetically engineered (GE) crops or seed if they believe it will endanger traditional crops, biodiversity or indigenous farming communities.

Should we have labels for Genetically Engineered food?
At the Second Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol’ in May 2005 in Montreal, New Zealand and Brazil vetoed any decision on labeling traded GE seed and crops. Every other country at the meeting supported clearly labeling imports of crops or seeds that are known to be GE “Does Contain GMO” (genetically modified organisms). NZ and Brazil insisted on a much weaker and vague label “May Contain GMO”. At the Third Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol’ Brazil completely dropped its opposition to the proposals. Brazil’s Environment Ministry even declared that within four years they would have the proper procedures to test all exports for GE content and then label them as so. Only after rather tense pressure from other nations, and an international email protest campaign, did the New Zealand delegation change their stand on the final day of the conference.

Why do people oppose GE?
Many farmers around the world, especially in developing nations, oppose the introduction of GE crops because the technology will give multinational chemical companies, such as the USA’s Monsanto, immense power over their livelihoods. Monsanto, which produces the majority of the World’s GE crops, has strict global patent protection over its products. Farmers are strictly prohibited from saving seeds from year to year, and must pay a large license fee for use of the seeds. Furthermore, Monsanto has developed GE technologies, such as the infamous “Terminator” seed that do not reproduce, thus saving seeds is made impossible. Most of the World’s farmers (who make up half of the World’s population) rely on saving seeds from year to year in order to afford to grow food.
rice farmer
An example of transnational corporations against local farmers
In 1998 Monsanto launched court proceedings against the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for breaching copyright of their patented canola seed. Unbeknown to Schmeiser, GE canola seeds from a neighbouring farm had blown onto his land and contaminated his crop. Neighbouring farmers rang Monsanto’s special toll-free snitch line when they noticed Schmeiser’s canola did not wither when he sprayed it with Monsanto’s Roundup spray. The seeds were specifically engineered to be resistant to Roundup. After many years of costly legal proceedings Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in Monsanto’s favour. Monsanto’s antics managed to put a farmer from a rich nation under incredible financial strain. Imagine if this happened to a poor peasant in the developing world!

What is the environmental impact?
GE crops have also had a huge environmental impact. The introduction of herbicide resistant crops has come hand in hand with the evolution of noxious herbicide resistant weeds. This has meant farmers have been forced to use greater amounts of herbicide. A hard hitting 2004 investigation in the New Scientist revealed that in parts of rural Argentina herbicide resistant weeds were forcing farmers to use so much herbicide that toxic clouds were drifting over villages and making children terribly ill.

What’s important in NZ politics?
While members of the National Party were holding the government to task over an MP’s alleged behaviour 20 years ago, the Green Party was taking the Labour government to task over its despicable stand against Third World farmers. Green MP Nandor Tanczos said “We have been the object of international condemnation for some time for being one of the only countries to block agreement. Now to our shame we stand alone in wanting to deny developing countries the protection of a robust international standard”.

The involvement of the USA
He also believes New Zealand appears to be a “stalking-horse” for the United States, who is not party to Cartagena, in blocking consensus on the agreement. The US Government has put huge pressure on other nations to allow GE crops through intellectual property rights clauses in trade agreements. Laws pushed through by the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in the early stages of the occupation of Iraq even specified that Iraqi farmers have no right to save patented seeds. Monsanto and other American biotech corporations are large donors to both the Democrat and Republican Parties.
corn
Should we be wary of Terminator Seeds?
Even though New Zealand fortunately changed its position late in the conference our government has also been trying to undermine international controls on “Terminator” seeds. When Monsanto first announced to the World they had developed this technology in the 1990’s Asian and African nations called for an immediate global ban. Not long afterwards in 2000 a de facto moratorium was put in place by nations meeting at a UN Convention on Biological Diversity Conference.

NZ support for Terminator seeds?

In February 2005 NZ and Canada caused international outrage when they attempted to overturn the moratorium. Environment Minister, Marion Hobbs said “New Zealand has no firm view on the merits of new organisms involving seed sterilisation [Terminator] technology but supports their case-by-case assessment rather than a blanket ban”. In January 2006, at a preliminary meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Spain, New Zealand and Australia repeated the idea that there should be a case by case’ assessment of Terminator technology.

NZ Parliament debate on GE issues
In Parliament Nandor Tanczos asked Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters:

Is the Minister aware that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not regard genetically engineered terminator technology as either good or bad, even though it is specifically designed to make plants sterile so that farmers cannot replant their seeds; and hence will jeopardise food security for millions of people?

Peters responded:

I am aware of what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s policy is. I am also very much aware that when such conventions or other agreements and treaties apply, and in fact exist—unlike the question’s imputation—then those matters will be decided by domestic policy, at which point I say that the Minister for the Environment and Minister of Agriculture should have been asked the question in the first place.”
yellow crop in field
Winston Peters’ avoidance of The Green MP’s questions was so bad that Act leader Rodney Hide (hardly a Green fan) raised a point of order with Parliament’s Speaker. The next day in Parliament Peters once again showed he did not take the extremely important issue of Terminator technology when fellow NZ First MP Doug Woolerton asked him if he was aware of any other substances that effect sterility. Peters answered “The answer is yes, for it is generally accepted that smoking cannabis has an impact on driving capacity, on mental capacity, on social capacity, and on the issue of sterility, which was the primary question asked yesterday. It can be a real terminator.”

Can we be proud of the NZ government’s international profile?
Some members of the Labour Party at university I’ve met claim that under the Labour led Government NZ has been a good international citizen, especially for standing up to the US by keeping out of the Iraq invasion. Unfortunately our government seems just as happy to undermine international agreements as the Bush Administration. We have a government in power that seems to not care about the majority of the World’s population.

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Apple photo by Holly Greening, others from stock.xchng