During the recent Ebola outbreak, most people were unaware that the experimental drugs that were used to treat American missionaries that had caught the virus were actually created using biotechnology. In my article on the life-saving ZMapp drug, I explained that small biotech companies were developing the product by using what is referred to as passive immunotherapy.
But what might further surprise you is that there are actually a lot of medications that are created by using biotechnology.
In fact, according to PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, there are over 900 biotech drugs currently in the pipeline or under review by the FDA that may be used to treat over 100 debilitating or life-threatening illnesses, including cancer. It certainly isn’t hard to imagine that biotechnology has blown open the door open on scientific research for cures and treatments of a whole host of conditions.
Insulin, which is a key piece of treatment for people suffering from diabetes, is also made from biotech processes. Caroline Coatney, who is currently a graduate student in Plant Biology at the University of Georgia, explained on Biofortified how biotechnology is used to make insulin:
Insulin is made, in principle, the same way the GMO corn starch and GMO sugar in Cheerios is. To start, the DNA sequence for human insulin is inserted into the bacteria E. coli, which creates an organism that now has DNA from two very different species in it. This new E. coli is a genetically modified organism (GMO) and serves as a cheap factory for mass-producing the human insulin protein. After a while, the E. coli bacteria has produced large amounts of the human protein to the point where the protein can be extracted from the bacteria cells and purified before being packaged into insulin shots. The insulin protein produced via genetic engineering is chemically identical to the insulin protein made in a healthy human body.
(Source: GMO Cheerios v. GMO Insulin) Caroline also explained that the process for genetically engineering much of our crops in agriculture undergoes the same or similar steps. Just as in medicine, the corn starch or sugars made from non-GMO plants turn out chemically equivalent to those made with GMOs.
But what about people that are opposed to biotechnology in agriculture? Are they seriously against these medications that can, quite literally, save someone’s life?
It seems the answer is yes.
One anti-GMO group tried to be “consistent” by urging followers, with a scary looking graphic, to stop taking insulin because it is made through genetic modification. (I decided not to share it on here because I believe that type of “advice” is not only wrong, but unethical.) Thankfully, Facebook had the good sense to take down the photo, but who knows how many people stopped their medicine before that was done. Not to mention that the graphic likely lives on in some other social media medium.
I hope that not all anti-GMO crowds would be quite so hostile. I do think that most people are leery about GMOs simply because they do not understand how it works. For those of us that do not use scientific analysis every day, these terms and concepts can be confusing and overwhelming. Medicine is already foreign and difficulty to understand; agriculture is more personal and part of our lives every single day. But the link between life-saving medicine and biotechnology that benefits agriculture should be something we all celebrate.
Just like people recognize the advantages of using biotech in medicine, we can also see the advantages in agriculture. I don’t think we will ever completely eradicate hunger or disease from the world, but we can certainly work toward those goals. In order to do that though, people will need to recognize that you don’t necessarily have to be afraid of things that you don’t fully understand. That can start with biotechnology in both medicine and agriculture.