TCS Daily

The Holy Grail in a Grain of Rice

By Henry I. Miller - June 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Who among us hasn't experienced a touch of the trots from stomach flu or food poisoning? For those of us fortunate enough to live in an industrialized country with ready access to health care, diarrhea is little more than a nuisance, most often involving some discomfort and bloating, and a day or two off from school or work; but in the developing world it can be deadly. In sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia with poor access to health care, clean water, and other resources, diarrhea is the number-two infectious killer of children under the age of five (surpassed only by respiratory diseases), accounting for two million deaths a year.

However, thanks to a simple but ingenious innovation by a California company, those numbers may soon be a relic of the past, like the mortality from smallpox and bubonic plague -- if we don't let naysayers and special interests get in the way.

Since the 1960's the standard of care for childhood diarrhea in the developing world has been the World Health Organization's formulation of rehydration solution, a glucose-based, high-sodium liquid that is administered orally. This low-tech product was revolutionary. It saved countless lives and reduced the need for costly (and often unavailable) hospital stays and intravenous rehydration. However, this product did nothing to lessen the severity or duration of the condition, which over time leads to malnutrition, anemia and other chronic health risks. Other approaches to treatments and preventive measures -- including changes in public policy, improvement of water treatment and the development of vaccines -- have not yielded significant, cost-effective results.

The solution (literally and figuratively) may be an ingenious, affordable innovation from Ventria Bioscience that combines high- and low-tech. It is an improvement on current oral rehydration that could be a veritable Holy Grail: two human proteins produced inexpensively in rice that radically improve the effectiveness of rehydration solutions.

It has been known for decades that breastfed children get sick with diarrhea and other infections less often than those fed with formula. Recent research done in Peru has shown that fortifying oral rehydration solution with two of the primary protective proteins in breast milk, lactoferrin and lysozyme, lessens the duration of diarrhea and reduces the rate of recurrence. Although the availability of an oral rehydration solution that lowers the severity, duration and recurrence of diarrhea would be of modest benefit to those of us in the developed world, it could be a near-miraculous advance in the developing world.

Ventria partnered with researchers at the University of California, Davis, and at a leading children's hospital and a nutrition institute in Lima, Peru, to test the effects of adding human lactoferrin and lysozyme to a rice-based oral rehydration solution (which provides more nutrition and tastes better to kids than glucose-based oral rehydration solution, so they're more likely to drink it).

The researchers found that when lactoferrin and lysozyme are added to rice-based oral rehydration solution, the duration of children's illness is cut from more than five days to three and two-thirds. This improvement is thought to be caused by the antimicrobial effect of lysozyme, which has long been known to be one of the primary protective proteins in breast milk. Moreover, over the twelve-month follow-up period, the children who had received the lactoferrin and lysozyme had less than half the recurrence rate of diarrhea (eight percent versus eighteen percent in the controls). This effect is probably caused by lactoferrin, which promotes repair of the cells of the intestinal mucosa damaged by diarrhea.

These developments represent significant progress in managing diarrhea and keeping it from becoming a chronic, recurring health risk.

What makes this approach feasible is Ventria's invention of a method to produce human lactoferrin and lysozyme in genetically modified rice, a process dubbed "biopharming." This is an inexpensive and ingenious way to synthesize the huge quantities of the proteins that will be necessary. (In effect, the rice plants' inputs are carbon dioxide, water and the sun's energy.)

Sounds like a great success for Ventria and end of story, right? Not by a long shot. Virtually every biotech breakthrough brings the creeps out of the woodwork, and this one is no exception. One radical biotech opponent remonstrated, "The chance this will contaminate traditionally grown crops is great. This is a very risky business."


Rice is self-pollinating, so outcrossing -- interbreeding with other rice varieties -- is virtually impossible. But even in a worst case, "contaminate traditionally grown crops" with what? With two human proteins normally present in tears, breast milk and saliva? Contamination, indeed!

Equally shameful was the comment of Bob Papanos of the U.S. Rice Producers Association: "We just want [Ventria] to go away," he said. "This little company could cause major problems." The truth is that it is the Luddite rice producers themselves who are causing major problems by their willingness to let the antagonism toward biotechnology by foreign importers of American rice interfere with the development of life-saving new products.

There were also completely baseless and malicious objections to the clinical trials themselves from left-wing activists in Peru, who claimed that the rights of the pediatric subjects were violated.  Typically, the activists grossly misrepresented the facts surrounding the product and the conduct of the trial.  The proteins used to supplement the oral rehydration solution are considered Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS; and the protocols, consent forms and study design of the trial were, in fact, approved by not only the Peruvian Ministry of Health, but also by review panels that oversee clinical trials at the University of California, the Nutritional Institute in Peru, and the Peruvian Ministry of Health.  Inexplicably, the naysayers ignore that the experimental therapy was found to be both safe and effective.

Biopharming has brought us to the verge of a safe, affordable solution to one of the developing world's most pressing health problems. It will be the first of many to come -- if only we can keep the troglodytes at bay.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.


rice grains
We can also expect opposition from all the anti-GM food fanaticts too. Remember they also didn't want that 'golden rice' either. Those guys want to save the world in general, but actually helping real people is of no concern to them. But I guess recently even the euro-foodnazis have relented a bit on GM, and have very quietly started on it too.

Biopharming is thought to be too high risk.
Corporations developing pharmaceutical-producing crops are taking a big financial risk. They must know this when they start. But biotechnology is reasonably simple and there are certainly a lot of people trained in the area. Presumably they are doing the development research in the hopes that future markets and regulations will allow them to use these methods.

This act of developing a process and then complaining about the regulatory laws is silly. It is similar to developing a process for making cheap nuclear power. Even if you could do so, the market is regulated and you must follow those regulations.

There are other ways to produce the proteins under more controlled production methods. So why not use these and wait for the data and the regulatory process surrounding pharmaceutical-producing crops to evolve at a pace that is safe and consistent with the primary goal? (The primary goal being to improve public health)

What methods?
"There are other ways to produce the proteins under more controlled production methods."

And how expensive are they?

Regulations don't evolve
Alternative production methods are expensive and require large, complex production facilities that poor countries do not have and can not afford. Rice can be grown almost anywhere and the life-saving liquid can be produced cheaply with very little equipment.

Waiting for the regulatory process to evolve is like buying a pet goldfish and waiting for it to evolve into the pet dog you really wanted. Regulations are written by short-sighted politicians and self-interested government employees. They don't evolve. They must be changed by the bureaucrats and will only be changed when the external pressure is large enough (Remember Newton’s first law of motion?).

If you want to know why the regulations are against bio-engineered foods, just follow the money. Politicians get huge campaign contributions from massive agri-business that does not want the competition from a little company like Ventria. Once the political contributions are large enough the regulations will change.

I wonder whether the author, Henry Miller, has any financial link to the product this post is an infomercial for. The article does not say otherwise. I wonder particularly because diarrhea already is cheap and easy to treat in the developing world, with Gatorade (or any other salty PH balanced fluid).

And there are several downsides of "frankenfoods". One is that they are patented so the farmers have to pay for new seeds every year. Another is that the genetic crossings that Henry Miller says are impossible have been observed (perhaps not in frankenrice, but in frankencorn and frankenwheat).

I wonder
whether LG has any faintest understanding of what constitutes an ad hominem argument.

As to the rest of your so-called argument, surely you are aware that nearly all farming is based upon purchase of seed. No modern farming is based upon farmers producing their own. So, it makes no difference in this case; the farmer is purchasing one kind of seed rather than another.

As for the second argument, immaterial and irrelevant.

bioformulated rice
I have a number of concerns:

The TCS note at the bottom promised further information on this technology, but the listing are more about the ideas that surround the biotech industry

The principle cause of the "trots" in developing countries is, indeed, microbial and due primarily to problems with accesibility to clean water. The solution to reduction is prevention- simple silver impregnated filters which can be made locally, can affect significant reduction in the problems at the household level, create local employment and not introduce the need to purchase specialty rice either as seed or in the market- a rather circuitous route.

Since it is the infant which suffer, it is an indication of possible lack of access to "mother's milk" a social/nutrional problem which is not solved with bio-rice but with access to food stuffs and education

None of these alternatives meet neo-classical economic needs as they don't generate profits and don't require scarce currency to be exported from communities with limited cash or subsidies from government programs for the distribution of the rice.

If, indeed, the proteins can be synthesized, what are the other routes which might be pursued


All of your alternatives require some resources and thus susceptible to economic requirements. All of your alternatives would make excellent programs since the get to the core causes of gastrointestinal illness and all should be sought. However, one problem, none of them really addresses present children with diarrhea and as such do not solve the problem the bio-rice intends. Many solutions to many problems are needed.

To your last point. Life forms are much better protein synthesizers than chemical plants. It may be possible to synthesize the topic proteins industrially but probably not economically.

Silly Boy
Your ad hominem remarks are entirely pointless and tiresome. The message is important, not the messenger. If gatorade is cheaper than the bio-rice as a solution to the problems addressed, fine, bio-rice will fail.

And enough with the thoroughly ignorant and polemical franken prefixing. The circumstance that GM and hybrid seeds are widely used in the developed and developing worlds without beggaring farmers is sufficient testament to their 'good'. And, what happens with crossing in wheat and corn is irrelevant, were talking rice here. Keep cogent comrade.

seeds of disagreement
American agribusiness farmers buy seeds. Farmers in many developing countries, not being "modern", produce their own.

Miller writes as an impartial expert, but many posters on this site are paid publicists (hacks). It is not ad hominem or unreasonable to ask.

Not really that expensive
Brewing proteins is about as expensive as making beer or wine. In either case (pharming or brewing) you need to do protein extraction, purification, and verification, quality control, etc. So there is no cost savings of pharming over brewing there.

Pharming regulation should follow the same guidelines as microbiology. There must be zero-mistake-tolerance. It is no safer than other forms of biotechnology.

What you say about regulation following the money is true up to a point. There are regulations that do not feed the big corporations.

On the other hand, I still say that it is pretty silly for a company, small or otherwise, to develop a technology that they knew would not be allowed, and then complain that the regulations don’t allow the technology to be used.

What you say is not true
You state "No modern farming is based upon farmers producing their own"

"Modern" meaning "practice today"?

If so, then you are very wrong on this statement.

What you say is true for the large corporate-owned or leased farms but not for the rest of the production.

Bad argument
All of the measures proposed by Tabeles address the same problem that bio-rice address. Implementation time should be faster in the case of legal and well-understood technologies. So these should be preferred methods. It would seem that the bio-rice is too complicated a solution.

Tabeles gave medication alternatives that get at the source of the problem. Prevention gets at the source of the problem. It is often more effective than the cure. They may be quicker to implement than biopharming since the technology is not really ready to be exported to places without the resources for protein purification, measurement, and final product quality control. This is medicine, not food.

The technology for producing proteins using yeast or bacteria is well established and currently used in the pharmaceutical industry. There is no apparent advantage of pharming over these already established methods.

Having lived and worked in rural areas at various times, none of the local farmers raised their own seed. All depended upon commercial varieties. This is far more important than just "corporate owned or leased" operations.

This is true of modern farming, both in North America and in Europe.

So are you advocating
that they remain in a primitive, low productivity farming economy?

As to ad hominem, you and I have had this argument before. Once again for the record, the origin of a speaker is utterly unimportant; the only matter of consequence is the truth, or lack thereof, in the idea expressed. By persisting in defending ad hominem arguments, you lay yourself open to the suggestion that you have no knowledge or worthwhile ideas to contribute to the discussion at hand.

typical LG
the only reason why anyone disagrees with him, is because they are paid to.

He can't
keep cogent. Ad hominems are the only contribution he ever makes.

Well, there was that big lawsuit, Monsanto v. some farmer
over the use of seeds that this farmer had raised him self. They were cross-contaminated with GMO crop in a neighboring field. The Monsanto folks sued him for using these seeds without paying a licence fee and even though he did not use the technology associated with the product.

So your anecdotal evidence (having lived in a rural area on not knowing about it) doesn't really hold up to any proof. This law suit case proves that at least some farmers in North America use part of their crop for seed.

another idea
I love every kind of frankenstein food but here's another radical idea for those poor people in third world countries who are getting too much montezuma's revenge; they get richer so they can buy bottled, or other purified water; after all that's what advanced countries did. Even in crappy countries like thailand and the philippines you can take an old gallon jug, or anything, and fill up at a clean water station. One Baht per liter.

Canadian Supreme Court Disagrees
Check your facts. First he claimed it fell off a truck. Then it was contamination from a neighbors field. EITHER WAY you don't end up with the amount of GMO in that field unless you spray and select. He took his case to the highest court in the land and lost. Now he has a new career as a shill for the green movement. (Bread gets buttered on both sides of this argument.)

Tragic Magic Northernguy
There is a group of posters on this board who obviously believe in magic.

In this particular case they are writing about some kind of magic filter that can clean polluted water. These filters apparently cost nothing, last forever, are maintainance free, don't need any equipment for setup and operation and require no skills whatsoever for there implemetation.

Great!!! Why wait for the third world to start using it. If it's even a tenth as good as described here why not stop chlorinating water in the industrialised world. Just start using these magic solutions.

I don't know about where you live but where I am the water supply is taxpayer owned and operated. It's very expensive, uses highly toxic dangerous to handle chemicals and leaves a slightly unpleasant taste. And, of course, cannot be absolutely proven not to have some measure of side effects. We know that it has side effects on the environment.

Will someone please tell me how the magic water cleaning solutions work and where our city can get them? Also could you please explain if their efficacy is so abundantly clear to you why haven't our experts who have been trying to drive down city costs raised the possibility of their use? I know they are well qualified in their field. I also know that they sincerely want eliminate the very, very expensive safety arrangements associated with injecting poison into the water supply. I also know that they would love to eliminate the attendant corrosion in the distribution system. They would just love to use all that money for something more ego boosting and high profile than simply fooling with the water. But they haven't and, apparently, can't.

Perhaps they know something that our conspiracy oriented poster friends do not.

The water source in the areas mentioned in the article is polluted. The vessels used to transport it are not sterile. The handling during transport is not sterile. The storage area in the residence (if they have a residence) is not sterile. The people drinking it are not sterile. Simply heating water and using soap to thoroughly clean themselves is beyond the means of many of these people. Unless this magic filter is directly in front of their mouths it won't work. And even if is used personally by every consumer it still does absolutely nothing to repair damage as is claimed for the enhanced rice described in the article.

One poster mentioned something about silver. Even a microscopic amount of silver made available to each one of a billion people is not a cheap solution whatever else it might be.

People are dying by the millions. Someone has offered a solution. Since there are no other solutions in place in the areas referred to I see no objection to its use.

Should it fail because it is not as good as some other solution proposed here but not curently in place any where in the real world then the manufacturers will lose their investment. I should think that those posters who expect such an outcome (and they know who they are) would be highly amused not indignant at the suggestion of its use.

The side effect of the current system is death, slow agonising death. The severity of potential side effects from enhanced rice some time far in the future seems pretty trivial by comparison. If you are worried about the people who are actually dying that is.

The symptoms produced by long term consumption of polluted water are indinguishable from HIV without expensive testing. It is considered a waste of resources to try separate Aids victims from water infection. The treatment for Aids (such as it is) is highly subsidised by outside sources so the population suffering from these symptoms is given free Aids medication, where available, along with a glass of polluted water.

One of the main conduits for aids transmission in these societies is by the local administrators of these programs most of whom are male and placed in positions of authority and power along with an education campaign to trust them.

Believe me. There are no simple solutions or they would already be in place. Every thing has its own cost. Perfection is the enemy of good.

Go there and look at the situation and then say that this rice will make things worse than they are now. If not, then who cares whether something else might come along some day that meets some aesthetic standard not clearly spelled out. If its cheap and saves lives who cares who made money and how much? If you know of a solution that is cheaper and/or more effective then go for it! Put it in place yourself.

Really. No one is stopping you. If you don't know how, it costs too much for you to do it, it takes resources that are completely beyond your ability, then maybe your solution isn't so simple after all.


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