Biotech Can Eliminate 2 Million Annual Diarrhea Deaths

Published February 1, 2007

New advances in biotechnology are offering hope for sub-Saharan Africa and poor areas of Asia and Latin America where diarrhea is a prolific killer.

Because of unsanitary conditions, contaminated water, and food infected by bacteria in feces used for fertilizer, people in those regions endure four billion episodes of severe diarrhea a year. Up to two million die annually.

For years, glucose-based rehydration solutions (similar to Pedialyte®) were used to treat diarrhea. They saved countless lives by replacing lost salts, sugars, and bodily fluids. However, even with the successful health outcomes, these solutions did not reduce the incidence or severity of childhood diarrhea.

Preventing Recurrence

Now Ventria Bioscience has developed an advanced solution that augments standard rehydration solutions by adding protective human proteins (lactoferrin and lysozyme) found in all human saliva and breast milk.

A recent child health study demonstrated the proteins cut the average duration of children’s diarrhea by 30 percent (1.5 days), and patients were half as likely to get diarrhea again during the next 12 months.

Equally important, Ventria produces the proteins in a special variety of rice, which makes its rehydration solution affordable even for people in poor countries.

Biotech Success

Ventria achieved its remarkable breakthrough by altering rice DNA and using rice plants as factories that utilize the sun, soil, and water as raw materials to produce the proteins.

The company extracts the proteins and adds them to rehydration solutions. Its success could convert one of the world’s most essential foods into a valuable lifesaver.

It costs roughly $1,000 to produce 1 gram (0.035 ounce) of protein from animal cells, making many vaccines prohibitively costly for even the wealthiest countries, and completely out of reach for destitute countries.

Producing the same amount from gene-altered plants would cost less than $20–and that means pharmaceutical companies will be able to put a higher priority on finding cures for rare and “orphan” diseases across the globe.

Solving More Problems

In another biotech achievement, SemBioSys Genetics has created genetically engineered safflowers that produce insulin at commercial levels. An acre of safflower can produce a kilogram of insulin, enough for 2,500 patients.

Fewer than 16,000 acres–about 0.2 percent of what Iowa farmers devote to corn (maize)–would cover the projected 2010 world demand for insulin. With diabetes on the rise in India and elsewhere, this advance could be vital.

Another firm, Syngenta, is working on plant-based antibodies that fight infections and skin disease. Other scientists are enhancing plants to produce vaccines, hormones, and enzymes that can treat HIV, cancer, heart and kidney disease, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, hepatitis, anthrax, West Nile virus, and arthritis.

Activists Oppose Progress

Instead of applauding these life-saving innovations, critics of biotechnology are attacking them.

The Center for Food Safety, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace assert so-called “Frankenstein” technology tampers with nature and could “contaminate” other crops. These groups are well-funded by organic food interests and others who profit by attempting to scare the public.

Breeders have been improving plants for millennia, using a variety of genetic technologies. Plant biotechnology is simply a refinement of the earlier, cruder techniques.

Today’s researchers employ genetic technologies that are far more careful and precise, and use management practices that maintain closed production systems and virtually eliminate any risks of accidental cross-pollination and gene migration.

But none of these facts persuade the “anti-humanists who put unfounded fear-mongering ahead of the world’s children,” said Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, who disagrees with the organization’s position on biotech.

Healthy, well-fed, safe from diseases that kill millions in other countries, with access to abundant clean water and electricity, the anti-biotech activists obsess about purely speculative risks from technologies that could improve and save countless lives.

Paul Driessen ([email protected]) is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power Black Death.