The Two GMO Wars:
Agriculture and Oncology
This front page NY Times
(September 6, 2015) story reveals that the most damning of emails may not
emanate from a server in Hillary’s dining room in Chappaqua or a bathroom in
It seems that the problem of having academics for sale
purchasable by the highest commercial bidder has branched out from academic
medicine to reach academic horticulture. This is all about GMO foods, the first
of the two GMO battlefields.
GMO stands for genetically-modified organisms. These are
purported to have two threats to people. The first is via the genetic changes
made to the seeds from which the agricultural products are grown. This is a
highly questionable threat given what happens to food in our stomachs once we
eat it. That low pH will probably destroy any putatively mutagenic man-made
nucleotides cloned into the seeds. The real threat is probably the herbicides
that can now be used on the crops because of the genetic changes placed into
the seeds making them resistant to the lethal effects of the herbicides. This
allows the more efficient killing of crop-choking weeds, but also introduces
more potentially harmful chemicals into the food chain.
is a vicious war of lobbying going on between large seed makers like Monsanto that sell these GMO seeds and the organic food makers who will benefit if the
public rejects the GMO food because the organic producers will be the only game
in a GMO-free town.
Not surprisingly both sides are recruiting academic experts
to support their respective positions. Now the academics are having a bit of
buyers’ remorse having found that their taking of large amounts of grant money
from their new corporate buddies undermines their credibility as independent
thinkers. No, duh, as my kids would say.
Once you declare yourself or your research program for sale
as an endorser or lobbyist, you give up your claim of intellectual independence
as a dispassionate academic and become, well, you know. You are just
negotiating the price.
The same thing is about to occur in the other GMO war. Here
GMO stands for genomically-manufactured oncology. An entire industry is being
developed surrounding genetic testing of human tumors as a means of planning
therapy and predicting prognosis and business is good. Academics are lining up
to take the money as are companies spawned of this technology. Other companies
are entering huge stock deals with academic centers at which they will do their
clinical trials prior to appealing to the FDA for marketing approval thus
entering into the frankest of conflicts of interest for the value of the
portfolio of the academic center will be heavily influenced by the research
results gleaned at the same center. There are two problems here as well.
is not at all clear that genomics data will dramatically alter the survival of
most cancer patients. And we shouldn’t expect it to given the heterogeneous
nature of clinical cancer and its inherent genetic instability precluding the likely
identification of a drug-guiding tumor genetic fingerprint. Second, the role of
academia in a free society is to be the impartial arbiter of truth upon which
the rest of society can depend for facts that in turn alter decision making,
especially clinical medicine decision making. Once the research arenas get in
bed with the corporate sponsors when both benefit from positive research
results, expect positive research results.
excuse that without commercialization there can be no useful drug development
is true, but the pharmaceutical industry and the academic institutions have
very different roles in this drug development process and once those roles are
confused, the veracity of the results upon which good drug development can be
based is undermined.
“takers’ remorse” expressed by the academics in the GMO food article is
touching, but a little late. The whores of horticulture have already had their
way with the market and with the academics (I am not quite sure who is the
whore, who are the johns and who is the pimp in this equation).
is becoming pretty late in the other GMO game as well. Genomics MUST fulfill
Koch’s postulates. Knowing the sequence of a tumor’s genes must translate into
a provable extension of an individual patient’s life in a randomized controlled
clinical trial for there to be an unambiguous proof of principle that
genomically-manufactured oncology really is the wave of the future. Tumor
shrinkage and two month extensions of life are not major breakthroughs. Sorry.
guess is that genomics will be a lot more useful as a predictor of cancer
predilection when used in sequencing the germ line genes of the well rather than
the tumor genes of the cancer ridden. Then it is possible that some
pharmacologic or dietary intervention may lessen the risk of cancer later in
life. Of course, more exercise, less food, less smoking and improved life
styles combined with rational cancer screening would have a much larger effect
on the cancer incidence in America than all this GMO stuff. It also requires no
further research and a lot less money.
a concept. Eat organic and do what your mother told you to and you decrease your risk for developing cancer (not to mention coronary disease). Thus the War on
Cancer can be more nimbly fought. But it is so much less sexy than a GMO food