AgResearch granted GE research approval

AgResearch has been granted approval to continue genetic engineering research on goats, sheep and cattle, using human DNA, to produce human therapeutic proteins in milk.

The state-owned science company received approval from the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) to genetically modify bacterial and mammalian cells, mice, goats, sheep and cattle at its Ruakura facility, near Hamilton. Controls were imposed to prevent animal products from reaching the food chain.

Erma noted that AgResearch had conducted similar work at Ruakura for the last decade with no organisms escaping.

No changes to the facility were needed as a result of Erma's approval.

Today's decision is separate to four other applications under consideration to allow AgResearch to further its GE research into transgenic animals, which have been genetically engineered to contain the genes from other species.

Erma said it considered the main benefit of the approved research would be an increase in scientific knowledge and the capacity for innovation in the country.

The application was for research and development to completion for "proof-of-concept", not field tests.

The DNA constructs would be used in mice before being used to modify large animals such as cattle.

"This is to confirm the consequences of the modification and to identify any potential animal welfare issues," Erma said.

The therapeutic proteins would require the use of human DNA coding. Artificially synthesised gene sequences would be used where possible, but human donors may be used.

The application made it illegal for AgResearch to use Maori genes, but legal to use other human genes.

The Erma approval was not unexpected, AgResearch's Applied Technologies Group manager Jimmy Suttie said.

"This approval allows us to meet contractual agreements we have and ensure our work covers relevant farmed ruminants in New Zealand, and this is important to pursuing transgenic research goals," Dr Suttie said.

"Importantly, this sets the scene for potentially building a New Zealand biopharmaceuticals research programme that can save lives and alleviate suffering all around the world."

Cows were valuable for researchers because they produce proteins that could not be produced easily and commercially in other ways, he said.

The Green Party expressed alarm at the decision.

"There are other ways to advance medicine and human health without crossing the species barrier and going into the strange brave new world of transgenic animals," said Green Party GE spokesperson Sue Kedgley.

The Erma decision paved the way for a massive expansion in the number of genetically engineered animals in New Zealand, including transgenic animals created using human genes, she said.

"Under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act completely new organisms, such as genetically engineered animals created using human genes, should be applied for on a case by case basis, not given a carte blanche approval as this one. This application is far too broad to allow any assessment of risk."

Dr Suttie said the approval was for a maximum of 200 animals.

Erma committee chairman Richard Woods said the application received 1545 written submissions, and 37 submitters presented oral submissions in March. Submitters expressed a range of views both for and against the application.