How Biotechnology is Changing Our World


Michael Fumento

Encounter Books, 2003, 510 pp.  1-893554-75-9


Fumento, a science writer, has been focusing on biotechnology since 1993.  The dust jacket suggests a future idyllic world but the book surveys a wide spectrum of genetic research and describes potential benefits.  Four sections of the book cover medicines, aging and health, food production, and cleaning up toxic wastes.  Hazards are recognized, but with sanity.  Fumento includes an index and a listing of biotech companies plus 146 pages of endnotes!  Because it’s such a hot political topic, you might want to see what he says about stem cells, beginning at pages 150 and 168.


Biotechnology won’t stop all pain or answer every medical or environmental problem, but it can improve health and eventually solve the world’s food problems.  It can make the planet unimaginably better.  (Intro. p. 2)


“The ethical questions are highly consequential and must be dealt with now and at every step on the way….”  “The potential of biotech is so broad and research is advancing so quickly that it can bring us all the miracles that scientists say it will, without necessarily involving processes that many of us find morally or religiously offensive.” (3,4)


In medicine, biotech is moving from treatment to prevention.  Aging will become treatable.  Some therapies will be cheaper.  (9)


Biotech begins with genes.  Genes are made up of two strands of protein called DNA.  Genes instruct cells to produce or ‘code for’ proteins.  Biotech is often equated with ‘gene splicing,’ taking a gene or genes from one thing and putting them into another.  It’s called ‘transgenics’ (for crops) or ‘recombinant’ or ‘recombinant DNA’ (for medicines).   Biotech is all about observing and manipulating the expression of genes.  Genes basically do their own thing, regardless of their environment.  Thus if you can find a gene that does what you want, you can put it in the species you want.  “Genes do what God and nature designed them to do.  They don’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, species or even kingdom.  They can do very nasty things to us, or they can do wonderful things for us.” (10-12)


Biotech is being utilized to improve vaccines, both therapeutic and preventative, for STDs, malaria, fungus, cancer, AIDS, and West Nile virus, among others. 


About 38% of Americans are affected by allergies, allergic reactions when their immune systems overreact to a foreign protein.  (16)


Once a gene is identified and isolated, it can be spliced into another organism that serves as a ‘factory’ to grow or mass-produce it.  Frequently the E. coli bacterium that we all have in our intestines is used.  Other ‘factories’ include yeast, mammalian cells, corn, etc.  (23)


The first recombinant drug was insulin, approved in 1982, and sold by Eli Lilly Company.  (25)  About 30 companies have psoriasis drugs in clinical trials.  (27) 


Many biotech pharmaceuticals have potential to become ‘miracle’ drugs (like aspirin) because they may treat a spectrum of maladies that have similarities that aren’t apparent.  (27)  One test product inactivates the agents that cause inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, a truly new response.  (28)


One company is working on mass-producing silk from goats that have had spider genes inserted in them.  (No.  Really!)  Silk is the strongest fiber know and could be used in wound healing, tissue repair, artificial tendons, prostheses, etc.  (38)


Eggs make fast, efficient and ultimately cheap protein production.  When they find the right proteins, researchers hope to turn chicken farms into factories for drugs to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.  (39-40)


Another way of painlessly and easily delivering immunizations would be through consumption of transgenically modified fruits, vegetables and grains.  Producing such foods is called ‘biopharming.’  Three types of pharmaceutical proteins are being developed in plants: 1) antibodies that fight a disease that has already taken hold, 2) proteins to prime the immune system to prevent disease, and 3) a wide range of biopharmaceuticals such as anticoagulants, anemia treatments and hypertension drugs.  Some of these can be delivered simply by eating the fruit or vegetable.  Others will be extracted from the plants for use.  (42)


Bananas are being developed to prevent diarrhea, which kills 2-3 million children annually.  Japanese scientists have transferred the hepatitis B antibody into rice plant genes.  Tomatoes and spinach are being developed as vaccines against rabies.  (45)


The immune system responds to any antigen polyclonally, i.e. it makes a great range of antibodies.  A monoclonal antibody isolates the specific antigen selected. (50)


Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune illness of severe joint inflammation, afflicts more than 2 million Americans.  Remicade has been a godsend for sufferers.  In combination it appears to stop progression.  A new technique, instead of prompting the body to produce antibodies, would introduce antibodies directly.  (54)


All cancers spring from genetic errors that produce mutant dangerous proteins or too much normal protein.  Most drugs interact with specific proteins but “antisense’ compounds intercede to prevent such protein production. (56)


For decades standard cancer therapy was ‘slash, burn and poison.’  Healthy cells suffered as well as diseased ones.  But we now have a much better idea of how cancer works.  (59)  Cancerous tumors develop blood vessels which allow them to grow but also allow cells to migrate into the blood stream and begin tumors elsewhere, called metastasis.  A new attack called ‘angiogenesis’ shuts down the vessels from the original tumor and inhibits growth of mutant cells that escape.  These agents appear to work against a broad array of cancers.  More than 60 such agents are in various stages of trials.  (61-2)


For the most part, drugs are prescribed simply on the basis of what has worked best for most people.  But each of us is genetically slightly different from everybody else.  Our genomes are 99.9% identical.  But 1 % makes a difference.  Pharmacogenomics takes into account those differences to design (almost) individualized medicine.  (65)  One of the first steps is mapping the location of errant genes for the most common diseases.  (68)


HIV produces many mutant strains, some of which are resistant to at least one drug.  One company invented a HIV genotyping test to decode the HIV genes in a patient’s blood.  Matching processes help doctors avoid drugs that won’t work.  (72)  Similar technology is being applied to tumors.  (74)


Five percent of children worldwide are born with congenital or hereditary problems.  Gene therapy could replace the defective gene with a good one.  Or they can add genes that cause the right proteins to be produced.  Other disorders can also be approached in this manner.  Most clinical trials are being directed against cancer.  There is also promise for treating heart disease, blindness, and hemophilia.  (76, 79-81)


In traditional drug discovery, diseases are like locks and therapies are like keys.  You check keys until one fits.  With genomic-based drug discovery, the locks are still there but you can perfectly measure the tumblers.  You go to the database where the exact dimensions of your keys are stored and search to find a key that fits.  (85)


Computers are fast, but for these applications they are limited.  IBM is working on Blue Gene, which will be 100 times faster than the current fastest supercomputer. (95)  Computers even 10,000 times faster could be readily applied.  (96)


Genes are essentially the instruction manuals for proteins.  Current goals are to raise an antibody against a protein.  However, the relationship between genes and disease is far more complex than was once thought.  The link between genes and illness can be tenuous.  Disease can result from the collusion of as many as 100 different proteins.  There may be 10 billion possible protein interactions.  (95-6)


Gene tests are already available for more than 800 genes or genetic variants that cause or increase the probability of disease.  Results indicating probability increase often unduly frighten people.  (100)


Human cloning is the most emotional issue in biotech.  It’s just a matter of time until it is done.  The purpose of therapeutic or research cloning is to create a large and unvaried supply of embryonic stem cells (ESC) for tissue regeneration.  If an embryo so created were implanted into a womb and survived, a clone baby would result.  The use of nonembryonic (adult) stem cells avoids this problem.  (109)


“The current processes of cloning inherently produce large numbers of mutations such that all clones are genetically abnormal.  That might be fine for a sheep or a mouse, but for humans it would be horrific.  Banning … won’t prevent it from eventually happening.  But if such a ban delays it, so much the better.” (110-11)


“Currently, gene therapy is directed entirely at those cells in the body, called somatic cells, that do not pass genes on to the next generation.  Inevitably, though, people are going to start manipulating germ cells, which produce sperm and ova, passing on information to generations thereafter.  Such therapy could remove, replace or change genes that cause inherited disease.  But it could also change other genetic attributes, such as intelligence of that distinctive beak-shaped nose.” (112)


Will biotech be cheaper?  Short answer: some will; some won’t.  Drug prices in general will continue to outpace the cost of living.  But there will be no comparison in the packages you’re getting.  As drugs become available for conditions that were previously untreatable, people will start using more of them.  If drugs can obviate surgery, therapy and special living requirements the costs may be offset elsewhere.  (116-17)


Biotech will inevitably extend longevity by leaps. Vastly different avenues are already showing promise. (126, 27)


Bruce Ames “advises about 100-120 milligrams of vitamin C a day; anything more and you’re literally peeing away your money because that’s the most your body can metabolize.” (142)


Regenerative medicine is one of the most promising areas of biotechnology.  It will restore parts that don’t regenerate naturally.  Newts and salamanders can regrow many body parts, including tails, limbs and even large sections of their hearts.  There seems to be no intrinsic reason why some day humans won’t be able to do the same.  Alternatively, organs will be made out of human tissue for replacements.  Cloned human corneas have been grown and attached.  (150-51)


Biological organs can be made from stem cells, those that have yet to take on specialized functions.  Stem cells can become many tissues by making certain changes in their environment.  (155)  Stem cells from marrow have been used therapeutically for many years, at least since 1986.  When you hear about marrow donations for leukemia patients, it’s these marrow stem cells they’re seeking.  (156)


“Thus far in North America, all of the approved medical applications for stem cells involve injecting those from marrow or umbilical cords, which then take on the form of the cells that need replacing.  It’s still fairly low-tech.  The next level is removing stem cells, then transforming them outside the body and putting them back somewhere.” (156)


“Coronary heart disease in general causes about one in five of all U.S. deaths.” Damage from a heart attack is permanent.  But the use of stem cells can reverse the damage, turning into heart muscle cells.  (158) 


Stem cells have been used to repair corneas in people who are beyond legal blindness.  Success rage for surgeries is greater than 90%.  (160-61)


Stem cells seem to act as a repair squad.  They travel through the bloodstream, respond to stress and repair damaged tissues.  It may even work for restoring damaged brain cells.  (162)


Bone marrow provides a limited number of cells and it’s painful.  However, one set of researchers found a way to convert stem cells culled from the fat sucked out during liposuction into various forms of other tissues, such as bone and blood cells.  If the cells are used to treat the same person, adverse immune responses and disease transmission are eliminated.  (167)  60,000 Americans undergo liposuction every year.  “It’s truly the ultimate renewable resource.” (168)


There are two types of stem cells, embryonic and adult.  The tremendous progress being made with adult stems cells (ASCs) could make it unnecessary to consider using embryonic stem cells (ESCs).  Up until recently it wasn’t known that stem cells could be harvested from all over the body.  (168)  It has been argued that ESCs are more flexible in the types of mature cells they can become.  But there is rapidly growing evidence that ASCs may be every bit as flexible.  For sure, ASCs are much further down the road in practical applications, in use from bone marrow transplants since the early ‘90s.  (168-69)


“Clearly, many of the allegedly impartial scientists testifying before Congress and trying to persuade the media are merely putting their mouths where their money is.” (177)


“It is possible to read lengthy, detailed articles on the promises of stem cells that keep the reader ignorant that ACS (adult stem cells) even exist!”  But they have been used to treat cancers and blood disorders routinely since the ‘80s.  (177)  There are constant efforts to downplay ASC research and to exaggerate alleged breakthroughs in ESC research.”  (178)  Adult cells are far closer to commercial application.  (179)  The number of researchers who believe that adult stem cells may give us everything we need is long and growing. The public is ignorant of the incredible progress made in using the body’s own stem cells.  (180)


“I and other scientists feel there are ethical constraints on science.  If you suggest this, they say you’re against progress and for keeping people in wheelchairs, but I think it’s a very, very slippery slope and I have a lot of problems with using embryonic stem cells.  It’s clear to me that life begins at conception.  Certainly by blastocyst stage [when the cells start to become useful] it is.  I was always taught to first do no harm.”  (Quoting one scientist, p. 181)


Xenotransplantation involves transferring organs from pigs or other animals to humans.  Pig heart valves have been used in humans since 1964.  Cook Biotech is “using intestinal lining from pigs for everything from patching up gunshot wounds, to closing up large sores, to regrowing cartilage in knees….”  Rejection is quick and untreatable for transplanting whole organs.  But if human genetic material is injected into pigs, perhaps the human body will recognize the new organ as human.  One possible problem is transferring viruses from them to us. (183-84)



Hunger from natural disasters, wars and grinding poverty consigns 830 million people to chronic malnutrition.  Agricultural biotechnology can be a powerful tool to get more nourishment to those who need it, food that is more nutritious, more delicious, less expensive, grown using less land and fewer chemicals, maybe even less water.  (191)


Those for whom rice is their major food suffer from a lack of vitamin A.  It’s the leading cause of preventable blindness in children with 250,000 or more who lose their sight and risk dying annual.  ‘Golden’ rice has been modified to contain beta-carotene, which is converted in the body to vitamin A.  (191-92)


Growth of every pound of rice requires 600 gallons or more of water, a major constraint in many parts of the world.  When genes are ‘stacked,’ i.e. several new genes introduced, multiple benefits can be obtained, in this case perhaps vitamin A, plus higher yields, greater virus resistance, and less water used!  (195)


More than 1/5 of the global crop area of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola is now biotech.  By far, the majority of these were grown in the U.S.  (200)


Biopesticides can dramatically reduce the need for spraying and also increase yields.  Farmers in America are reporting increasing numbers of birds of prey and other wildlife in their genetically modified crops because fewer harmless bugs are being killed by pesticides.  (218)


“It is really fascinating to see how many similarities there are between plant and human pathogens.”  “We can study one organism and learn something about another one.” (231)


“For the next few decades, the biggest problem with food plants will be growing enough of them.”  Nearly 40% of the world’s agricultural land is ‘seriously degraded.’  (233)


One way to get more food is to make crops resistant to cold.  Another is to make plants grow faster or to make fruit trees produce sooner.  Perhaps plants can be made more heat-tolerant, or saline-resistant.  40% of the global harvest comes from irrigated land and irrigation water has some residual salt with builds up in the land.  Aluminum toxicity is second only to drought as a cause of poor yields.  Too much acid harms plant growth.  Where yields are low subsistence farmers burn down more rainforest and plant more land.  Cadmium and copper also build up in soils contaminated by fertilizer use or industry.  All these issues are potentially solvable through biotechnology.  Even making perishable fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer to survive transport is a possibility.  (233-245)


One researcher believes healthy food can be made to taste better and vice versa.  A San Diego company has identified 347 human olfactory receptor genes related to smell.  Each of the genes is thought to encode a unique protein that controls the recognition of odorants, of which there are about 10,000 that humans can identify. (247)  Getting more vitamins into foods we enjoy is a major goal of biotech engineers.  (251)


“When we debate GM foods [genetically modified] we should keep an empty chair at the table for the people who will benefit—or stand to lose out if this work is not done.  That empty chair represents 2.5 billion people who are vitamin deficient, and who live on less than $2 a day.  They can’t afford to buy supplements.” (252)


“For us, biotech food will be very nice and, like air conditioning or luggage with wheels, we will soon wonder how we ever did without it.  For those in the underdeveloped nations, it’s literally a matter of life and death.” Both conventional technology and biotechnology are needed.  It is access to new technology that will be the salvation of the poor.  While Europe’s population will soon begin to decline, the developing nations will continue to grow until at least the middle of the century. (256-58)


This research is also being done in a big way in nonwestern countries.  New Delhi researchers are making plants that require much less water.  China is a world leader in developing biotech crops.  While some of China’s crops are designed to feed a growing population, many are intended to feed a population growing in affluence.  (265-66)


Attitudes, questions and risks of food biotechnology are analyzed on pp. 270-295. 



‘Bioremediation’ means using living organisms including bactgeria, plants or fungi to do a cleanup job.  (300)  


The EPA’s National Priority List in 2003 included more than 1,200 toxic waste sites and new ones were being added regularly.  There are perhaps 400,000 contaminated sites in Western Europe.  Nigeria’s Niger River Delta alone, a wetlands area of 42,000 square miles with 7 million inhabitants, has over 2.5 million barrels of oil pooled in spill sites.  That’s more than ten Exxon Valdez disasters.  (299-301)


‘Phytoremediation’ uses plants - including trees, grasses and aquatic plants - to remove, destroy, or sequester hazardous substances from the environment.  Treatments include cleaning water through uptake in roots, absorbing contaminants from the soil and storing in roots or shoots, degradation of contaminants through the plant’s metabolism, stimulating bacteria and fungi to degrade pollutants, reducing the mobility of contaminants in soil, uptake and transpiration of organic contaminants. (304) 


More than 400 metal hyperaccumulating plants have now been discovered.  (307)  ‘Mother Nature’ is not always benign.  One of the world’s worst poisons is the natural element arsenic, which is commonly found at very high concentrations, usually from the dissolution of minerals and ores.  Contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh is the largest poisoning of a population in history.  From 35 to 77 million are at risk of drinking water naturally contaminated with arsenic.  Recent studies show that it works its way into the rice grain, which provide 75% of the calories of the country.  (309)


Brake fern is a sucker for arsenic.  It concentrates in its cells up to 200 times the arsenic level found in the soil.  Brake fern genes could be spliced into other plants that will grow in whatever environment they are needed. (310)


Near Chernobyl, sunflowers have been used to absorb deadly radioactive elements in groundwater.  (311)


Our planet has five million trillion trillion bacteria (a 5 followed by 30 zeroes).  [5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000] There is a bacterium that will eat nearly every kind of toxic waste (except, perhaps Styrofoam cups).  (316)


“Sewage systems have to be one of the most underrated marvels of the modern ages.” (319)


The Future

“Biotechnology is just beginning to enter its era of transcendence; it now lags only behind computer technology in patent applications.”  “Biotechnology will revolutionize medicine, will extend lifespans, will feed the hungry and provide a cornucopia of better foods to everyone, and will make the environment cleaner.  We know it will because the process has already begun.”  


“There are also plenty of things to worry about concerning the future.  For example, will we really be better off when we can receive 2,500 channels on TV?  What will happen when the characters in children’s video games—the ones they splatter all over the screen with their joy-stick-controlled weapons—no longer merely appear lifelike but indeed look identical to human beings?” (326-27)


No new technology is completely safe.  But then, no old technology is completely safe.  New technologies tend to get safer and better faster.  New technology brings both hope and fear, the fear of the unknown.  “Perhaps I worry less about biotechnology than some of the other developing technologies because I understand it better.”  “I know there will be ethical problems with biotechnology because there already are.”  (329)


“Depending on whose poll you consult, over 100 million Americans think we’re allowing the murder of more than a million unborn children a year.  Whether or not you agree with them, this is a moral dilemma that swamps any ethical problem I can even conceive of regarding biotech.” (329)


“I also see it as an ethical issue that while obesity has become epidemic in the industrialized world, malnutrition remains endemic in the underdeveloped world.” (329)


“The future of biotechnology—guided not just by scientists but also by our elected leaders and the bureaucracy, by our best thinkers, by philanthropies and profit-minded corporations, and even by skeptical advocacy groups—is bright indeed.  The process has begun and it’s accelerating.  The ultimate benefits are unimaginable, while the near-term ones are incredible.” (329)