RNAi in GM food crops - risks supressed

June 2014
Photo from Creative Commons
In something of a re-run of the orchestrated defamation of Arpad Pusztai in Scotland in 1998, a respected American professor with 30 years experience to her credit has found herself unable to get funding for her latest biotech-unfriendly research, nor get it published.

She also found Monsanto breathing down her neck in a very unpleasant way.

Professor Vicki Vance is a very pro-GM scientist, seeing GM plants as a useful thing which a lot of good things can come from.  However, her view of GM safety which used to be “Hell, yes it's safe - how is this gonna be dangerous?” is now yes there are risks but these simply need to be sorted out.  She says of Monsanto “Why don't they just fix their freaking plants so they won't be dangerous to people?”

Her area of GM expertise is in RNA interference (RNAi*).  This technology artificially alters the small molecules of RNA generated by DNA to regulate gene function [1], and promises to be a major focus of the next generation of GM crops.  Monsanto is planning to make a lot of money from it.
*RNAi may also be referred to as regulatory RNA, or double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), or micro-
RNA (miRNA).

Her crime was to do what scientists do.  She checked out a surprising bit of science carried out by other scientists.  In the process, she hit on something which raised safety concerns about GM RNAi, and also something which suggested exciting possibilities for the treatment of cancer.  It doesn't sound like the sort of research anyone would want to suppress.

The beginning of the story is that a Chinese team of scientists published evidence that dietary RNAi could enter the body tissues of mice, where it altered gene activity with potentially harmful effects.  For Monsanto, this was bad news because it's busy plugging RNAi crops as safe.  For drug companies, like miRagen Therapeutics Inc., who are trying to develop RNAi-based drugs, this could also be bad news because it could render their profitable RNAi delivery systems obsolete.

When Monsanto and miRagen collaborated to reproduce the Chinese study, they failed to find RNAi in the tissues.  Vance's view is that both companies had a financial interest in discrediting the research, and had every reason to fail to get a positive result.  Another American research team also tried to find dietary RNAi in human, mouse and bee tissues, with no success.  The Chinese results were accordingly declared to be false positives due to poor technique.

However, RNA is small molecule and very difficult to detect in tissue: false negatives are more likely than false positives.

Vance wasn't convinced of the alleged Chinese ineptitude.  She designed an experiment to bypass the need to directly detect RNAi by measuring its physiological effect (if any).  Three types of RNAi each with a known ability to suppress cell division and protect against cancer were fed to a strain of laboratory mice bred to be highly prone to cancer.  She found the tumour burden of the test mice to be significantly reduced.  Such simple dietary intervention has, potentially, huge implications for the treatment of cancer.  Nevertheless, this is the experiment that no one will publish and that no one will offer funds for continuing the research.

What happened next was that Monsanto kept trying to send its own scientists to 'help' Vance with her lab work.  It also cancelled a previous invitation for her to talk at the International Symposium of Biosafety of GMO Plants after she insisted that the Chinese results had to be mentioned because their experiment was “part of the story, it has to be discussed”.

Vance's conclusion on the whole affair is that it is “an effort from a large company with a lot of money toward discrediting the work of this other group and keeping people from publishing their work.

She's still pro-GM with the proviso that “If a new risk comes up you shouldn't fight it - if new data show this is a possible risk, address it.”


If the Chinese scientists are really as bad at science as Monsanto et al. claim, this should be self-evident and the idea that RNAi in food could find its way into our tissue and make mischief would die a natural death.  The fact that strenuous efforts have been made to suppress both the alleged 'error-ridden' study and the follow-up work which supported it, while promoting trial results which contradicted it, suggests that the risks from artificial RNAi in food are another inconvenient truth which industry doesn't want us to know.

Don't swallow it.

[1]  RNA MODIFIED FOOD - July 2013


Caitlin Rockett, Muzzled by Monsanto, Boulder Weekly, 3.04.14

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