(By Dr. Heather Kuruvilla)
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are often portrayed as unnatural, potentially harmful, and just plain scary. Like any technology, genetically modified organisms have some potential risks, both to people and to the environment. We don’t know if the newly engineered proteins may be allergenic or otherwise harmful to humans. And there’s always a risk that engineered traits could “migrate” from the engineered species into native species, causing unforeseen environmental consequences.
The potential benefits of GMOs, however, are too often under-reported. What if we could solve pressing global health issues, like malnutrition, or vaccine distribution, using GMOs? The Golden Rice project addresses vitamin A deficiency by engineering rice to produce beta-carotene. In parts of the world where rice is part of the diet and vitamin A deficiency is endemic, golden rice could be a substitute for white rice.
In areas of the world without much infrastructure, vaccine distribution is a formidable challenge. But if folks could grow their own banana vaccines, they might be protected from Hepatitis B. This would also reduce potential complications such as liver cancer. Work on banana vaccines has is tricky, since bananas are not all the same size, and it would be difficult to know when a patient has the right “dose” of a banana.
Even if we can’t use fruit to make oral vaccines, perhaps GMOs can still help us fight disease. For example, the experimental Ebola vaccine ZMapp is grown in genetically modified tobacco plants. A genetically modified flu vaccine, using insect cells to produce viral proteins, has recently been approved by the FDA.
Maybe GMOs aren’t so scary after all.