Caught in the crossfire

2019-03-07 03:01:08

By Andy Coghlan THE collapse of a British company developing genetically engineered vaccines in plants has raised fears that medical biotechnology will be damaged by controversy over engineered foods. Axis Genetics of Cambridge went bust last week after failing to raise the £10 million it needed to finance the next phase of its vaccine development programme. Industry analysts believe investors were scared off by public hostility to genetically modified plants. Earlier this year, Axis began clinical trials of a potato-based vaccine against hepatitis B, a virus which triggers liver cancer and causes 1 million deaths worldwide each year. The company is also developing vaccines against cholera and two other diarrhoeal diseases. All its plants were grown in glasshouses, not in open fields. Ultimately, Axis was hoping to develop bananas containing the vaccines, which could be grown cheaply and then eaten to stave off killer diseases in the world’s poorest countries. Iain Cubitt, chief executive of Axis, hopes this research can be saved, perhaps by being taken over by another firm. “I think that what we’re doing is of tremendous potential benefit, as there’s no cold storage required for the vaccines, and no needles,” he says. But there is concern that the company’s woes are a taste of things to come. Since public fears about GM food exploded in Britain earlier this year, industry sources had been worried that the controversy would have a knock-on effect on investment in medical applications of genetic engineering (New Scientist, 27 February, p 7). “It’s the first example of spillover to medical biotechnology, and there’s potential for more,” says John Sime, chief executive of Britain’s BioIndustry Association. Cubitt says the fact that Axis worked with plants, rather than with the bacteria used by most medical biotech firms, was the problem. “It put us in the firing line with investors who were worried we might get tarred with the GM food brush.” The shock waves have extended to the US. “For a company seeking to develop new vaccines against cancer to be ground under by this hysteria is a very unpleasant surprise,” says Carl Feldbaum of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington DC. Axis collaborated with a team led by Charles Arntzen at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Science in Ithaca, New York, a pioneer in developing plant vaccines. Arntzen says that his research will be delayed, and fears that other valuable projects will suffer unless protesters become more discriminating. Ian Wilmer of Friends of the Earth, which has been prominent in the campaign in Britain against GM foods, rejects this criticism. “If there is a problem, it’s because the government has not adopted an intelligent policy on biotechnology,” says Wilmer. “There’s no reason for us to stop campaigning against GM foods and crops because there’s collateral damage to other parts of the industry.” But Doug Parr, an anti-GM foods campaigner at Greenpeace, takes a more conciliatory line. “We have absolutely no argument with Axis, and we have no desire to see beneficial applications that are properly contained damaged by adverse publicity,