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Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
AusBiotech
ISSN: 1036-7128
Vol. 9, Num. 5, 1999
au99013

Australasian Biotechnology, Volume 9 Number 5, November/December 1999, pp. 234-249, 270-271

Editorial, News, Company News, Asian News:-

Code Number: AU99013

FROM THE EDITOR
New Journal Arrangements

We are pleased to announce that we have reached agreement with Hallmark Editions of Moorabbin, Melbourne to jointly publish this journal. This arrangement will commence with the next issue. The ABA will retain editorial control, while typesetting, magazine design, advertising and subscriptions will be handled by Hallmark Editions.

Hallmark have an excellent track record in this area - publishing Australian R&D Review, GEO Magazine, the journal of the Australian Water & Wastewater Association, and a number of annual reports and newsletters for major banks and other bodies.

We feel confident that this will be a very rewarding partnership. As regular readers will know, Australasian Biotechnology has been modified during this year from its original 64 page structure with several scientific articles to a smaller journal of 32 to 48 pages with more general and business news, and an overall greater emphasis on biotech business. We are keen still to include outstanding scientific articles of a review nature but to limit the number of these.

The new publishing arrangement will enable us to keep abreast of developments in computerised production methods and to bring more professionalism to the publication. We also want to make the journal more of a `magazine' _ more accessible and readable by the business world and by thinking readers worldwide as well as by our loyal ABA membership and subscription base.

The arrangement will also give us access to better information coverage, and allow us time to do some "investigative journalism", interviews of leading biotechnologists, and to develop profiles of major Australian biotech players. Things we have always wanted to do, but were precluded by time available.

Our readers, and particularly our ABA members, will always be our priority. We will continue to strive to make this journal one of Australia's leading technical and business magazines. ABA members will continue to be supplied with the journal free of charge as part of their membership. The publication will remain the official journal of the ABA.

The Editors and Production Staff would like to thank all readers, contributors and advertisers for their efforts to make this a good journal. We hope you will all continue to be involved.

May I wish you all a Great New Year and a welcome break from all the stresses of the past year.

Martin Playne
Editor

Dr Martin Playne

NEWS

US Senate Declares January 2000 National Biotechnology Month

Before adjourning recently, the US Senate passed a resolution, introduced by Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.), designating January 2000 as National Biotechnology Month.

The resolution was adopted by unanimous consent. BIO will work with President Clinton to issue a presidential proclamation supporting National Biotechnology Month and encouraging states to adopt similar resolutions.

A copy of the resolution is posted on BIO's website (http://www.bio.org/) under the What's New and Press Release sections.

For more information contact Patrick Kelly, BIO's director of state government relations and grass roots programs.

Science Turns Today's Ideas into Tomorrow's Jobs

The South Australian State Government must establish a Biotechnology Incubator within 18 months or it will miss the boat to join one of the world's fastest-growing job-creating industries, SA State Parliament MP's heard recently.

The CSIRO Science Briefing, Jobs for the Future _ Where Will They Come From? looked at job creation opportunities for SA in the ideas economy of the 21st century.

Biotechnology executive Dr Chris Goddard told the briefing that an incubator would fund and market SA's biotechnology research through the critical stages of early commercial development.

"The biotechnology industry worldwide is booming," says Dr Goddard, industrial manager of SA's leading biotechnology company GroPep Pty Ltd. If we don't establish a biotechnology incubator right now, the opportunity to create real job growth in SA will pass us by. There should be a bipartisan political approach and cooperation between departments for the establishment of the incubator. The government simply needs to be decisive," he says.

Innovation Summit

The Federal Government and the Business Council of Australia are sponsoring a National Innovation Summit to be held in Melbourne on 10 and 11 February 2000. The summit aims to identify strategies for governments, industry and the research community to improve Australia's innovation capacities and international competitiveness.

The President of the Academy, Professor Brian Anderson, has been taking an active role in the summit, both as a public advocate of policies supporting innovation and as a member of the summit steering committee, which is overseeing the planning of the event.

More information on the summit is available from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources web site at http:// www.isr.gov.au/industry/summit/index.html..

Forum on Therapeutic Cloning for Tissue Repair

The Australian Academy of Science's second consultative forum about the feasibility and ethical questions raised by the possible medical use of cloning technologies was held at Becker House on 16 September 1999 and judged by all who attended to be a very important meeting.

The Academy's position statement On Human Cloning is available on the Academy's web site at www .science.org.au/policy/statemen/cloning.htm . A summary of the forum will be available shortly.

Valuable Milk Components

Imagine chewing gum for reasons other than blowing bubbles, relieving nervous energy or improving breath. What if the reason was to assist with remineralization of tooth enamel?

This is now possible with a new patented ingredient from Bonlac Foods Ltd., Australia's leading dairy and one of its largest food exporters. The ingredient, derived from milk, is a complex of casein phosphopeptides (CPP) and amorphous calcium phosphate (ACP). It is trademarked RecaldentTM and is being launched this fall to US and European markets in Trident AdvantageTM and Trident for KidsTM chewing gums, which are manufactured by Warner-Lambert Co., Morris Plains, NJ.

In milk, CPP holds calcium and phosphate ions in an amorphous, soluble form. Recaldent mimics the natural action of milk as the CPP-ACP complex stabilizes ACP in solution and localizes calcium and phosphate in dental plaque at high concentrations. This allows calcium and phosphate ions to diffuse into teeth, promoting remineralization of enamel subsurface demineralized areas, thus making teeth stronger.

The University of Melbourne School of Dental Science has extensively researched CPP-ACP, with various published scientific and clinical studies supporting its effectiveness in strengthening teeth. The University of Melbourne and the Victorian Dairy Industry Authority patented the CPP-ACP complex. Bonlac Foods has exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights to it, and owns the Recaldent trademark. In early 1999, FDA accepted the Recaldent GRAS notification.

Bonlac has granted Warner-Lambert exclusive rights to use Recaldent in chewing gum; however other oral care application partnerships are forseeable. In a proactive approach, Warner-Lambert will be alerting consumers, especially parents of young children who are allergic to milk protein, that its two new Trident gums contain a milk casein derivative. Individuals with allergy or severe sensitivity to milk or milk-based products are at risk of a serious or life-threatening allergic reaction when they chew these products. Trident labels will contain the Recaldent logo, which will readily alert consumers to its casein content.

"By applying modern scientific methods to nature's own products, we are able to improve the standard of dental care," says Phil Scanlan, Bonlac's CEO. "Recaldent is an exciting step forward and the first of what we are confident will be many milk-derived products from Bonlac to improve people's lives." We can expect to see more dairies exploring the opportunities in isolating functional components from milk for application in the growing functional food category.

Reproduced from Dairy Foods 100 (9) September 1999.

R&D Start - Update

R&D Start provides over $700 million over four years from 1997-98 for companies to undertake industry research and development (R&D) and related activities. The objectives of R&D Start are to:

  • increase the number of R&D projects with high commercial potential that are undertaken by companies;
  • foster innovation in Australian business;
  • foster greater commercialisation of outcomes from R&D projects; and
  • foster R&D projects by companies working together or working with research institutions.

Elements of R&D Start are:

  • Core Start provides assistance of up to 50% of project costs for smaller Australian companies through grants for R&D and R&D-related projects and, through loans, for the early commercialisation of technological innovation.
  • Start Plus provides grants up to 20% of project costs for larger Australian companies,
    with group turnover of $50 million or more to undertake R&D projects.
  • Further assistance is available for high quality projects. Start Premium offers all companies an additional repayable amount which `tops up' either Core Start R&D grants or Start Plus to a maximum of 56.25% of project costs.

R&D Tax Concession

The R&D Tax Concession Program is the principal Government incentive to enhance and increase the level of R&D being conducted in Australia. Companies incorporated in Australia, or public trading trusts, can deduct up to 125 per cent of qualifying expenditure incurred on R&D activities, when lodging their tax return. The objective of the Program is to promote the development, and improve the efficiency and international competitiveness, of Australian industry by encouraging research and development.

Further information contact: Natasha Proctor, AusIndustry, email: nproctor@isr.gov.au

Food Science Bureau

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) has launched its Food Science Bureau to provide scientifically substantiated factual information about food science and related technologies.

The Food Science Bureau aims to provide consumers, industry, policy makers and the media with access to independent, credible, science-based information about nutrition, healthy lifestyles, food safety and biotechnology and subsequently, to encourage accurate and balanced discussion of food and food technology issues.

Food Science Bureau's Scientific Expert Panel

Independent and highly credible expert spokespeople in the major areas of food science and related technologies will provide technical expertise and advice in their own subject areas. Expert panel members present at the launch were Barry Shay, Food Science Australia (Food Safety), Assoc. Prof Jennie Brand-Miller, University of Sydney (Carbohydrates and Human Nutrition), Dr Jenny O'Dea, University of Sydney (Nutrition Education) and Dr Jim Peacock, CSIRO Plant Industry (Gene Technology).

A state-of-the-art Internet site - This allows timely and cost-effective access to information from all over the world. It contains a comprehensive resource base, latest rood science news and answers to commonly asked food science questions.

Current Fact Sheets include the Facts About Health Living and the Facts About Gene Technology. The Nutrition Series includes the Facts About Antioxidants, Salt, Sugars, Sugars-Dispelling the Myths, Fats and Oils, Food Additives, Aspartame and Food Intolerances and Allergies.

Major Investment to Boost Scottish Biotechnology

Scotland's biotechnology industry is to receive almost £40 million over the next four years in a concerted effort to strengthen Scotland's reputation as a centre of excellence forleading edge biotechnology. The investment is part of a new Framework for Action for the biotechnology industry, announced by Scottish Enterprise, which aims to double employment in the sector from 9,000 to 18,000 people, double the number of biotech companies from 50 to 100 and increase the number of support and supply organisations from 90 to 150 over the next four years.

The industry backed targets will be achieved by increasing the number of organisations participating in the cluster, improving the performance of existing companies and increasing the nature and the number of linkages within the cluster. The framework is the culmination of an 18 month long consultation with industry and with academia.

Henry McLeish MSP, Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, said: "The UK currently leads Europe in biotechnology, but if Scotland is to develop further we need to foster an environment which encourages biotech companies and investors to view our country as a natural place to locate and do business. This framework is a welcome beginning of that process."

Full details at http://www.sebiot ech.org.uk/artc.cfm?ID=72

Consumer Demand for Genetically Pure Food Creates Export opportunity for Australian Farmers: KPMG

Strong consumer preferences for food that is not genetically modified is creating a tremendous export opportunity for Australian farmers and agribusiness, according to KPMG associate director, Mr Roger Hussey.

Mr Hussey was speaking after a presentation by the Director of the Japanese Consumer Union, Ms Setsuko Yasudo, to a KPMG-hosted seminar in Melbourne for Australian agribusiness companies and food retailers.

Ms Yasudo said more than 66% of Japanese food companies had switched to purchasing non-genetically modified ingredients exclusively. Ms Yasudo told the conference: "My very clear message for Australian farmers is do not produce genetically modified foods. You simply will not sell it in Japan."

Mr Hussey said around 50% of the major food crops in the US _ the world's largest food producer _ had been genetically modified.

"A number of other major food producing nations do not have Australia's advantage of farm production that is essentially genetically pure. This has created a marketing opportunity for Australian agribusiness that is expected to develop multi billion dollar proportions," Mr Hussey said.

The KPMG seminar was addressed by the President and CEO of Genetic ID, Mr Bill Witherspoon. Genetic ID was the world's first laboratory to offer genetic analysis to the food industry. Along with LawLABS of the UK, it has developed a non-genetically modified food certification program (CERT ID) that tracks the entire food production process from the farm to the retail shelf. 

In the United Kingdom a consortium of retail food stores including Sainsbury, Unilever, Nestles, Safeway, RHM and UB has endorsed Genetic ID and CERT ID as the common standard for testing of genetic modification in foods.

Mr Witherspoon said substantial price premiums were becoming available for non- genetically modified seeds because of increasing demand and limited supply.

"The Australian food industry now has the opportunity to aggregate its low agriculture production into larger non genetically modified volumes and compete powerfully in the world."

New Focus for Prestigious Science Prizes

Australia's premier science award is to have a new name and a new focus, highlighting the importance of science and innovation to the nation's prosperity. Senator Minchin unveiled the new prize, to be known as the Prime Minister's Prize for Science, at Parliament House. He was addressing an audience of more than 160 scientists at the launch of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies' document, Australian Science: an Investment for the 21st Century.

"The nation's pre-eminent award for excellence in science will be renamed to acknowledge the Prime Minister's commitment to celebrating this field of endeavour. The prize will be a national award valued at $300,000. It will recognise outstanding achievement by Australians in science and technology which promotes human welfare. In addition, the recipient of the award will also become a member of the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council for the following year."

"The Prime Minister's Award will honour the contribution of outstanding Australian scientists and is an important part of the Government's effort to encourage participation in science", Senator Minchin said.

Young achievers will also be recognised, with two new prizes of $35,000 each for young scientists who have made outstanding achievements in their field. These prizes, the Minister's Prizes for Achievement in Science, will be awarded in the fields of the physical sciences and the life sciences. A panel including internationally recognised scientists will select the prize winners.

"These prizes will help raise community awareness and understanding of the contribution science and technology have made, and will increasingly make, to our economic and social well-being. They are also intended to help raise the status of science and technology, and encourage young people to pursue a career in science."

"A culture of enterprise and innovation requires a strong science skills base and awareness about the links between science, technology and competitiveness", Senator Minchin said.

The focus of the awards has been changed following a review of the Science and Technology Awareness Program (STAP). The review also showed that projects supported by STAP, including National Science Week, the Australian Science Olympiads and the ABC Science Development Project, attracted a high level of community interest and extensive media coverage.

The new awards will be presented at Parliament House in mid-2000.

Pioneer Researcher into Insulin Action Awarded in Brisbane

A pioneer in research into the cell biology of insulin action has been awarded the 1999 Glaxo Wellcome Australia Medal for breakthrough research applicable to human health.

The winner is Professor David E. James, Associate Director, Professorial Research Fellow and NH&MRC Principal Research Fellow of the Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Queensland. Professor James' award winning research has been undertaken in the United States and Australia over more than a decade.

Since its inception in 1980, the Glaxo Wellcome Australia Medal has been awarded annually in recognition of outstanding research leading to important demonstrated or potential benefit to human health. Today it is regarded as one of the most prestigious awards within the Australian research community.

The Hon. Peter Beattie MLA, Premier of Queensland, presented the award to Professor James at a presentation dinner in Brisbane on Monday 8 November. Approximately 160 guests, including some of Australia's key researchers, clinicians, and academics, attended the presentation dinner.

Professor James' innovative work includes the discovery and cloning of GLUT4, the transport protein mediating the entry of glucose into muscle and fat cells. These developments have contributed substantially to the understanding of cell biology in insulin action, fostering numerous international collaborations and generating hope for new treatment options for diabetes.

"I am delighted to present this prestigious award to an outstanding Queensland-based scientist whose work has been recognised as having future application in the treatment of diabetes, a disease which increasingly impacts on the health of our community. May I offer my congratulations and extend my best wishes for the continuing success of this and further research in Queensland" said Mr Beattie at the presentation dinner.

Professor James is the nineteenth scientist to be awarded the medal. The medal and honorarium of $30,000 are provided to acknowledge the recipient's achievements to date and to help progress the work. A requirement of the Medal is that the majority of the research is undertaken in Australia.

The award is made on the recommendation of a number of eminent researchers in conjunction with Glaxo Wellcome Australia.

"Glaxo Wellcome Australia is committed to investing in the Australian scientific and research community to develop and commercialise discoveries internationally for the benefit of all Australians, in the endeavour to bring discoveries from molecule to market," said Mr Steven Skolsky, Managing Director, Glaxo Wellcome Australia.

"Professor James leads a team undertaking research that is vital to our understanding of the mechanism of insulin. His work, strengthened by numerous international collaborations, has contributed significantly to scientific knowledge of diabetes, and presents real potential for the development of new treatments for these diseases in the future," said Mr Skolsky

The Hon. Peter Beattie MLA, Premier of Queensland presents the 1999 Glaxo Wellcome Australia Medal to Prof. E James. Associate Director, Center for Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Queensland.

New Light on the Role of Microbial Pathogens in Atherosclerosis

Results just obtained in France provide answers to key questions on atherosclerosis, by showing that bacteria and viruses can induce atherosclerosis when an anti-inflammatory cytokine, interleukin 10, is lacking. These findings, obtained in experiments with mice, pave the way for new clinical studies on the link between infectious agents and atherosclerosis. If confirmed in humans, they should shortly open up exciting new treatment possibilities.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in industrialised countries (32% of all deaths in France, for example), and atherosclerosis is often the underlying process. Genetic and environmental factors (such as smoking, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol levels) are known to play a role in atherosclerosis, but various lines of evidence also suggest that microbial pathogens are involved in the formation of atheroma plaque (ie. Atherosclerosis) or in its rupture (potentially leading to cardiovascular events). Bacteria (especially Chlamydia pneuromiae) and viruses have been detected at an abnormally high frequency in atheroma plaque, and have been forwarded either as co-factors in people already at risk, or as the chief cause of atherosclerosis in people with none of the classical risk factors.

Alain Tedgui, Ziad Mallat (Inserm unit 141, headed by Bernard Lévy) and their co-workers found that microbial pathogens induced atherosclerosis in experimental mice when an anti-inflammatory cytokine, interleukin 10 (IL-10 production is under genetic control. Between 50 and 60% of the human population can produce high levels of this cytokine, while 40 to 50% produce intermediate levels and 5 to 10% can only synthesise small amounts.

The Inserm team worked on a mouse strain deficient in IL-10. The animals were raised in cages with filtered air (protecting them from air-borne microbes), and received a diet designed to induce atheroma plaque. The researchers found that the plaques were three times bigger than in similarly treated mice with normal IL-10 production, thereby demonstrating that IL-10 limits atheroma plaque formation.

The team then examined what happened when IL-10-deficient mice and their normal counterparts mice were exposed to unfiltered air containing microbial pathogens. This time the atheroma plaques in the deficient mice were 30 times larger than in their IL-10 producing counterparts. In other words, exposure to air-borne pathogens multiplied atheroma plaque formation by a factor of 10 in IL-10 deficient mice.

Finally, the researchers examined the composition of the atheroma plaque (proportions of lipids, macrophages, fibres and muscle cells), because this is an important factor in its stability, ie its tendency to break free from the vessel wall. The proportion of collagen fibres _ a factor protecting against rupture _ was four times lower in IL-10-deficient mice than in normal mice. Thus, the absence of IL-10 not only multiplied by a factor of 10 the size of the atheroma plaque when mice were exposed to air-borne pathogens, but it also made the plaque far more likely to rupture.

If confirmed in humans, these findings may shortly lead to new treatment possibilities for atherosclerosis, as recombinant interleukin 10 is already being used to treat certain diseases.

Reference: Mallat, Z. et al (1999) Protective role of interleukin 10 in atherosclerosis Circulation Research 85: E17-E24 (http://www.circresaha.org/ )

Year 2000 Australian Technology Awards

PricewaterhouseCoopers and Technology Transactions Limited are proud to conduct the Year 2000 Australian Technology Awards.

In two short years the Awards program has fast become a major event for publicly recognising Australian technology achievements in a broad range of scientific disciplines.

A non-profit initiative of PricewaterhouseCoopers and Technology Transactions Limited the Awards serve a twofold purpose, that of supporting the commercialisation of Australian technology and of developing links between our science and research and business and investment communities.

Nominations

Express your interest by submitting a nomination, entries are now open in ten Award categories and all nominations received will also be eligible to win the major Award, the Australian Technology Award for Excellence in the Commercialisation of Technology. Please visit the Awards web site at http://www.austechawards.co m.au/ to download a nomination form and/or nominate on-line. The closing date for nominations is Friday 28th January 2000.

Recognition of Achievements

In Sydney's Olympic Year, the Awards Presentation Ceremony will be conducted on Thursday 1st June. The spectacular black-tie event will once again be compered by Robert Gottliebsen, Founder and Chief Commentator of BRW Media and will be staged at Sydney's new, premier venue, The Westin Hotel. The dinner registration forms may also be downloaded from the Awards web site, register now to avoid disappointment.

Award Categories

Excellence in the Development of Technology from the Engineering/Manufacturing Sector
Sponsored by _ AusIndustry/DISR & IR&D Board

Excellence in the Development of Data Management
Sponsored by _ Australia Post

Excellence in the Development of Technology from the Government Sector
Sponsored by _ Australian Technology Network (ATN)

Excellence in the Development of Technology for Multimedia
Sponsored by - Business Review Weekly (BRW)

Excellence in the Development of Electronic Commerce and Internet Technology
Sponsored by _ Dell Computer Pty Ltd

Excellence in the Development of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Technology
Sponsored by _ TBA

Excellence in the Development of Technology from an Organisation Employing less than 50 people
Sponsored by _ Macquarie Bank Limited

Excellence in the Development of Communications Technology
Sponsored by _ NASDAQ Stock Market

Excellence in the Globalisation of Australian Technology
Sponsored by _ Skadden, Arps, Slat, Meagher & Flom (International)

The Chairman's Award
Sponsored by _ UUNET

The Australian Technology Award for Excellence in the Commercialisation of Technology
Sponsored by _ Pricewaterhouse Coopers & Technology Transactions Limited

Aussie Research to Help Fight Liver Disease

Australian and German scientists are exploring possible new treatments for liver cancer and other liver diseases using gene therapy.

"Gene therapy offers huge potential to lead to better treatments for a number of diseases," says CSIRO Molecular Science Chief, Dr Annabelle Duncan.

"These treatments are designed to be very specific, to go right into the diseased cells themselves and either correct the defects or destroy the cells without affecting healthy tissue."

"The advantages of this will be that the treatments will be safer, minimally invasive, cause less side effects, and, we hope, that in the case of cancer, it will mean less likelihood of the disease recurring."

This week CSIRO signed an option agreement with HepaVec AG, a German based liver disease therapy company.

The agreement allows HepaVec to evaluate and build on research done by CSIRO into using a sheep adenovirus as a taxi to take genes for disease treatment into human cells. If successful it may lead to a longer term joint research agreement.

The research aims to develop revolutionary new treatments for malignant diseases such as liver cancer and metabolic diseases such as Wilson's disease.

"Once genes that can be used to treat any given disease are identified, we need to find ways to get them into the target cells. Viruses have been found to be excellent tools for introducing genes into cells and are being widely studied for treatments of a range of diseases," Dr Duncan says.

"HepaVec will be looking at using their technology to treat the diseases and combining it with our technology to get it into the cells."

Different viruses have different abilities to target certain cell types. Retroviruses for example infect only dividing cells from a limited range of cell types. Adenoviruses on the other hand infect both dividing and non-dividing cells from a wide variety of tissues including liver, lung, muscle, breast, prostate and many others.

"Adenoviruses are widespread in nature and show a high level of species specificity. Human adenoviruses are common causes of mild upper respiratory infections in humans," explains team-leader, Dr Gerry Both.

"Since most people will have been infected at some stage in their life with human adenoviruses they will possess immunity that will limit the use of human viruses for delivery of therapeutic genes."

"Sheep adenoviruses have never been encountered by humans hence their use as gene delivery vehicles should not be limited by pre-existing immunity. All studies to date would indicate that ovine adenovirus will not cause disease in humans because whilst it can infect human cells it cannot replicate in them", says Dr Both.

HepaVec, a company based in Berlin, has a strong technology base in gene therapy and is one of a limited number of collaborators assessing the adenovirus technology for gene therapy purposes.

From `The Guardian', London _ 20 Sept 1999 - Blair (UK) and Clinton (US) Push to Stop Gene Patents

David Hencke, Rob Evans and Tim Radford

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are negotiating an Anglo-American agreement to protect the 100,000 genes that control the human body and provide the catalysts for medical advance.

The extraordinary deal _ initiated by Mr Blair _ aims to prevent entrepreneurs profiting from gene patents and to ensure that the benefits of research are freely available worldwide to combat or even eliminate diseases. The two leaders decided to act after an acceleration in the pace of discovery of the make-up of the human body. In 1997, 8,000 genes had been mapped; by 2003, the body's entire 100,000 genes will have been mapped.

The deal aims to ensure that the world's largest charity, the British-owned Wellcome Trust, and the US government owned National Institute of Health, publicise genes within 24 hours of their discovery _ so that the benefits accrue entirely to the public. Research bodies, universities or laboratories, would be obliged to wive their rights to patent their work in the public interest.

To get the deal Mr Blair, through his science envoy, Lord Sainsbury, pressed the US government to scrap an agreement with an American entrepreneur scientist, Craig Venter, who set up his own company, Celera in Maryland, to patent as many human genes as possible.

A Letter from the Secretary-General, OECD

Dear Sir or Madam,

Consultation with NGOs on Biotechnology and Other Aspects of Food Safety

During the last few months, the OECD has intensified its work on biotechnology and food safety, including in response to a request from the G8 Heads of Government and State to examine these issues and to report back by the time of their next Summit in July 2000.

I have decided to hold a consultation with "civil society" at an early stage of the work in order to explain new OECD initiatives and, more importantly, to hear the views of various stake-holders on the issue of biotechnology and other aspects of food safety (including GMOs). This consultation will be held at the OECD Headquarters in Paris on Saturday, 20 November 1999.

This consultation is intended to be an opportunity at which major international Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), representing consumer and environmentalist interests, as well as international federations of business and scientific associations, can outline their views on biotechnology and other aspects of food safety. Space permitting, national NGOs will also be invited. Chairmen of the various OECD Committees involved in work on biotechnology and food safety will join me to listen to your views first hand. The results of this consultation would be presented to the 29 ambassadors of OECD countries who constitute the OECD Council and would be a source of information to assist the OECD in developing its response to the G8 request.

In order to allow attendance by a large number of interest groups, it is planned to have only two representatives from each participating NGO. The OECD has opened an internet site (http://oecd.org/subject/biot ech) in which interest groups can post their views and thereby contribute additional background information for the conference.

An agenda and a registration form are attached. Participants will also be able to register via internet (http://oecd.org/subject/biot ech) as from 3 November. In order to facilitate security arrangements, and because space is limited, participants must please register in advance.

I look forward to welcoming a wide cross-section of major international and national NGOs who will share with OECD their knowledge, views and concerns on biotechnology and other aspects of food safety, a topic which is of crucial importance for our economies and societies.

Yours sincerely,

Donald J. Johnston 

The Future of Genetically Engineered Food Crops

Where is world agriculture heading in the next century and what role will biotechnology play in food and fibre production? According to internationally renowned molecular biologist, Dr Richard Jefferson, new technologies in the pipeline will lead to new, humane and decentralised forms of biotechnology, and breakthroughs in agricultural production on a local and global scale.

Jefferson, who is Head of the Centre for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA) In Canberra, will describe the first generation of these technologies and explain how they might be applied to overcome challenges facing agriculture in the next century when he delivers the 1999 Milthorpe Lecture at Macquarie University on Monday.

Jefferson's research specialty is the development and dissemination of novel methods in genetic engineering and molecular biology, with emphasis on transgenic organisms in agriculture and our environment.

His career spans 20 years with organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN in Vienna, Zimbabwe and Kenya, the Centre for Agro-Industrial Research in Italy, and the Institute of Plant Science Research at Cambridge.

Jefferson was the first scientist to successfully express novel genes specifically in potatoes, and participated in development of the principal methods for genetic engineering of potato and other crops. He initiated, coordinated and supervised the world's first field-release of genetically engineered food crops.

The Milthorpe Lecture at Macquarie is one of three activities supporting the Milthorpe Fund in memory of the late Professor Fred Milthorpe, Chair of Biology at Macquarie University from 1967-1982. The other two activities are the Milthorpe Award which assists graduate students to visit other universities and attend international conferences, and the Milthorpe Prize for excellence in third year plant biology.

The first speaker in the Milthorpe lecture series was Professor David Suzuki in 1989, and since then speakers have included Professor Paul Ehrlich, Sir Ninian Stephen, Mr Neville Wran, Dr Bob Brown, Professor Michael Archer and Senator John Faulkner.

The 1999 Milthorpe Lecture was held on Monday 8 November at 1 pm in the Mason Theatre, Macquarie University

Scottish Involvement in the Bio-Wise Programme

The Scottish Minister responsible for industry, Henry McLeish MSP, at a seminar on 3rd November 1999 encouraged Scottish business to make more use of biotechnology. He stressed the role of BIO-WISE, a DTI programme designed to encourage knowledge transfer across industry and help businesses to take advantage of developing markets both in the UK and overseas. Grants are available on a competitive basis, especially in the chemicals, textiles and engineering sectors.

There is also a BIO WISE hotline 0800 432100 and a web site http://www.dti.gov.uk/biowise.

Results from UK-BIA recent AGM and Election of Office Bearers

The following individuals were newly elected to the Board of the BIA as directors:

Corporate members _ Paul Drayson, Powderject and Peter Nolan, Oxford BioMedica

Associate members _ Tony Bradshaw, BTG

Paul Haycock, John Hillman, Robert Mansfield and John Padfield were re-elected to represent corporate members, whereas June Grindley was re-elected to represent Associate members.

Following the vote to approve changes to the BIA's Memorandum and Articles of Association, Paul Haycock will take over from Robert Mansfield as Chairman of the Association on January 1, 2000 when Jurek Sikorski will become Vice Chairman and Robert Mansfield will become Past Chairman. Website _ http://www.bioindustry.org/

Pre-Budget in UK _ Capital Gains Tax Taper Relief

Of the new measures announced, the most significant for BIA members was the shortening of the capital gains taper for business investment. This is welcome as it recognises the need of venture capital investors to be able to implement an early exit strategy, the original 10-year taper was widely considered to be far too long. As well as cutting the taper from 10 years to 5 years, the Chancellor also proposed increasing the scope of CGT incentives by reducing the percentage thresholds for qualifying business' share-holdings. The details of these changes will be subject to consultation.

Contrary to the impression gained from the Chancellor's initial statement, the CGT taper has not been cut for private investors. The taper does apply to business angels, but to qualify they must own at least 25 per cent of a business if they are non-employees (employees must own at least 5 per cent to get the benefit of the new proposals).

This announcement is perhaps a mixed blessing for the venture capital sector. While it is a step in the right direction, critics would argue that the system is still overly complicated and that the CGT burden should simply be cut. This would go much further to sharpen investment incentives.

University of Quebec (Montreal) Creates Bio-industries Management Chair

In an effort to meet the growing need for skilled managers and entrepreneurs who will help sustain the development of biological industries, a new Bio-industries Management Chair was created at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). Located in the heart of Montreal, the Chair will foster the active participation of Canadian university professors and graduates as well as the involvement of stakeholders from academic, financial, industrial and commercial circles. Interactions among these groups are intended to favour the development of synergistic ties within the biotech community.

Past studies of the Canadian biotech industry have unanimously stressed the need for management and specialized expertise to accelerate the transition from research and development to commercialization, and an increasing number of universities are responding to this challenge. "The UQAM initiative is definitely a positive step in this direction," stated Graham Strachan, CEO of Allelix Biopharmaceuticals and BHRC Chair. "Canada's competitiveness can be greatly enhanced by the establishment of programs that allow industry executives to develop skills in areas such as entrepreneurial management, product development, strategic alliance management, international regulation and technology transfer."

Gallup Poll

October 5, 1999 - What Biotech Food Issue?

Americans not alarmed by application of biotechnology in food production by Lydia Saad

Gallup News Service

Princeton, NJ _ US public concern about genetically modified foods barely registers a ripple in a new Gallup Poll survey. While Europe is reportedly in an uproar over biotechnology-related food safety and environmental concerns _ fraught with boycotts, vandalism, and charges of "Frankenfood" _ only 10% of Americans report having heard "a great deal" about the issue and just one-quarter, 26%, currently believe it poses a serious health hazard to consumers.

The biotech controversy focuses on concerns that specialised strains of corn, soybeans and other agricultural products may not be safe for human consumption when they utilise genetic manipulation rather than traditional cross-pollination methods. The debate encompasses food-testing issues that could eventually test the trust Americans have in the United States Food and Drug Administration's ability to guarantee the safety of the food supply.

According to the September 23-26 Gallup survey, Americans today seem quite relaxed about food safety issues. Without reference to any specific hazard, 80% say they feel confident that the food available in most grocery stores is safe to eat; 69% feel confident in the safety of restaurant food. This conviction stands in stark contrast to the situation in Europe, where consumer concerns and boycotts have forced a mounting number of food producers and grocery chains to take a "biotech-free" pledge.

Reprinted from the GALLUP Website http://www.gallup.com/

Funding for Start-Up Companies

Three of Start-up Australia's investee companies have recently secured additional rounds of funding. Thrombogenix and FuCell each attracted second round funding and Alchemia attracted its third round. These investments bring the amount of capital raised by Start-up Australia's investee companies from other investors in the past two years to over $19 million. The capital was primarily sourced from six Australian based investors, five of which are venture capital investors.

While successful capital raising is a reflection of the scientific and management strength of the individual companies, the level of coinvestment is also an indication of the increased demand by investors for established life science companies. This is an encouraging trend for the industry and is a validation of Start-up Australia's emphasis on investing at the seed and start-up stage to add value to companies so that they can raise more capital as their businesses develop.

BioVentures Australia, Start-up Australia's recent joint venture with US based Research Corporation Technologies, has been established to provide seed funding and create start-up companies. BioVentures Australia will assist research institutions to create investment ready companies in order to attract follow-on investment funding for commercialisation of their intellectual property. This joint venture will enable Start-up Australia to further expand its role in creating value from Australia's research base.

Review of DPI Science

The Queensland DPI's Chief Scientist, Dr Joe Baker, is reviewing the Department's R&D effort and its effectiveness in meeting the Queensland Government's priorities.

The review, to be completed by November 30, will examine the funding mechanisms that support DPI's effort, and whether they are adequate to allow diversion to higher priority R&D areas if necessary; review the procedure by which the DPI determines its portfolio of R&D activities and its resource allocations; assess the coordination of R&D activities across and between portfolios, and with other providers; and recommend improvements to the focus and management of DPI's research effort.

Dr Baker, together with former CSIRO deputy chief executive, Dr John Radcliffe and policy analyst Dr Arnold Wissemann, is also undertaking an evaluation of the five DPI Institutes.

The evaluation will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Institutes and how they will operate under the new Agency for Food and Fibre Sciences.

COMPANY NEWS

Technico's International Expansion

Following the second round fund raising last year, Technico has progressed with international commercialisation in a number of markets.

Technico has commenced a joint venture with Chambal Fertilisers to produce potato seed in India. The joint venture will build a manufacturing facility in India using Technico's technology and supply potato seed using Chambal's extensive distribution network.

Technico has also acquired a minituber business in the US which provides a significant presence as the company seeks to expand into the North American market.

The expansion into Asia continues with the commissioning of a factory in China and the signing of a large supply contract with the Pepsico group in Thailand and China. Technico continues to leverage its technological advantage to secure market share internationally.

Thrombogenix Enters Preclinical Development

Thrombogenix has raised a second round of finance to enable it to take its new class of anti-clotting drugs into clinical trials. The drug candidates in development prevent the blocking of arteries by blood clots that cause heart attack and stroke. These diseases are the most common cause of death in western society. The market for such a drug is believed to be more than $1.5 billion per annum.

Thrombogenix is developing a pipeline of products including a diagnostic which measures clotting risk and a second novel class of anti-clotting drug.

The initial start-up of Thrombogenix was achieved with an investment by the Australian Technology Group, managed by Start-up Australia. The latest round of funding amounted to $3 million. The major investors were Macquarie Technology Funds Management and Momentum Funds Management.

Dr Elane Zelcer, Thrombogenix' CEO said "The factors which attracted the investors are the same as those which lead to the formation of the company in July 1997; the discovery of novel technologies which can lead to products for well defined, large and growing markets, the potential for a high return on investment and a good team capable of developing the products."

Since the investment, Thrombogenix has been awarded a START grant for $1.0 million from AusIndustry. This grant is to assist in funding the preparation of the lead drug candidate for clinical trials.

Fucell Increases Output

FuCell recently completed a second round capital raising. This investment will provide funding for the development of a number of fully human antibodies, including an antibody for the prevention of Hepatitis B in people with exposure to the disease.

FuCell has developed a new platform technology for the creation of cell lines which produce fully human proteins. This technology allows for the immortalisation of human immune cells by the selective electro-mechanical fusion of single human cells and has created an opportunity to produce a wide range of human proteins of therapeutic value. The types of proteins which FuCell is able to target include monoclonal antibodies, cytokines and cytokine receptors. Each product targeted has potential sales of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This second round of capital will allow FuCell to increase its output of cell lines and facilitate identification of proteins and antibodies being produced by these cell lines.

Roche Holding to Sell Genentech Stock

Roche Holding AG will be offering up to 22 million shares of Genentech Inc. to the public, thus reducing its current stake in the biotechnology company by 17 percent. By selling close to US$3.8 billion worth of shares on the market and borrowing another US$1 billion (through the sale of bonds exchangeable into about 5.5 million Genentech shares), Roche hopes to acquire sufficient funds for general corporate purposes. Analysis speculate that the proceeds from the sale will be used to pay down debt in the form of fines and legal costs in vitamin price-fixing cases, as well as to fund acquisitions.

According to Nick Woolf, a biotechnology analyst at BaneBoston Robertson Stephens, the sale is expected to give Genentech more liquidity and a broader shareholder base while giving Roche a cash injection without losing majority control. This latest sale is timely as Genentech stock has risen sharply in 1999 amid a great deal of enthusiasm about new drugs, including the cancer therapies Herceptin and Rituxan.

Reproduced from APBN, Vol 3 No 22 (1999)

Virax to Use CSIRO Technology in HIV Trials

Pharmaceutical research company, Virax Ltd, has signed a licensing agreement with CSIRO for exclusive use of their fowl pox virus (FPV) technology in all HIV/AIDS applications, and for use with Virax's existing Co-X Gene technology for other human health problems.

The FPV technology includes a delivery technique developed originally for avian veterinary applications. CSIRO Animal Health scientist, Dr David Boyle developed the FPV-M3 virus for use as a vector to carry vaccine into other animals and humans. The agreement covers use of the vector technology, biological building blocks for new vector construction and on-going collaboration with Dr Boyle and other CSIRO experts. The FPV vector technology will be used as an additional capability to test Co-X-Gene in Virax's forthcoming PhaseI/IIa HIV/AIDS treatment trials.

Co-X-Gene is a platform technology where antigens and cytokines are produced simultaneously. The clinical trials are being managed by the Institute of Drug Technology Australia Limited and will involve researchers at Westmead Hospital, St Vincent's Hospital, the National HIV Centre, Alfred Hospital, and the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research.

IDT Surges Ahead

The Institute of Drug technology Australia Ltd has reported an after-tax profit of $1.86 million for 1998-99, a 109% increase over the previous year. Revenue for the period increased by 32% to $12.95 million.

IST is developing business in two areas _ the first involving the commercial production of active pharmaceutical ingredients and the second, fee-for-service drug development activities with particular focus on early stage drug development. During the year IDT acquired its premises and invested in new laboratories specially designed to handle the manufacture of the company's anti-cancer drugs including the platinum drugs, Cisplatin and Carboplatin, which have seen a large increase in demand.

Another drug, which received US FDA approval for manufacture at IDT, will generate the first commercial sales by the end of the year, and approvals for a further four products are expected over the next months.

The size and capability of the R&D facilities and workforce have been increased, and IDT is working with pharmaceutical companies to develop new anticancer drugs and to manage clinical trials.

Novogen Wins R&D Start Grant

Biopharmaceutical company, Novogen Limited, has been awarded a $3.75 million R&D Start grant to develop the novel cardiovascular drug, NV-04.

NV-04 is a synthetic compound based on the structure of naturally occurring human phenolic compounds which have been shown in early pre-clinical studies to have potent activity in improving cardiovascular function. The therapeutic use of NC-04 is intended to reduce the incidence of both heart attack and stroke, particularly in women after menopause.

Novogen research director, Professor Alan Husband, said NV-04 had effects in preventing hardening of the arteries as well as the development of atherosclerosis. He said the grant would enable Novogen to produce the pre-clinical data required for a submission for clinical trials approval to the US Food and Drug Administration with the expectation of commencing clinical trialing within three years.

Spin-Off Company Develops Bioremediation Products

Scientists at Flinders University have formed a new company, Flinders Bioremediation Pty Ltd, to commercialise a range of microbe-driven remediation methods for treating polluted soil and organic wastes.

The company has been formed following the completion of a number of bioremediation projects by the Flinders team, including treatment of 4000 tonnes of soil polluted by pentachlorophenol from Harbourside Quay site near Port Adelaide and the treatment of diesel polluted soil at an ex-railway yard in Mount Gambier.

Dr Nick McClure, a senior lecturer in biological sciences, is the company's managing director, and a general manager has also been appointed.

Flinders Bioremediation has won a contract in New Zealand to treat soil removed from a number of disused wood treatment plants, and was one of 30 companies recently funded by the Federal Government to attend the Biotechnica '99 fair in Germany.

Gradipore to Sell Gradigels over the Internet

Biological separations company, Gradipore Limited, is to sell its GradiGels over the Internet.

Gradipore joint managing director, Mr John Manusu, announced this at its annual general meeting on 30 November 1999.

GradiGels are Gradipore's electrophoresis gel range, which are used to separate proteins and other biological compounds, including DNA.

Gradipore's business is focused on biological separations in the pharmaceutical industry where separations represent 70 to 90 percent of the cost of manufacturing a drug. Mr Manusu said market research conducted by Gradipore indicated that 85 percent of potential customers for GradiGels used the Internet.

"This research has presented us with an additional commercial opportunity in that the Internet is a medium through which Gradipore can offer its products at a significantly lower price," Mr Manusu said. Mr Manusu said the distribution agreement with Eppendorf-Netheler-Hinz GmbH is currently under further discussion. He added that the strengthening of Gradipore's own commercial position over the past year has enabled the Internet initiative to be undertaken by Gradipore on its own.

Gradipore operates its business through four divisions:

· Gradiflow, which utilises technology for the separation and purification of biological materials

· Gradigels, which manufactures the gels required to analyse the results obtained using the Gradiflow technology

· Haemostasis, which provides reagents for the study of blood clotting and related disorders

· Medical Applications, which focuses on developing medical and pharmaceutical uses for the Gradiflow technology, such as blood fractionation and removal of pathogens

Mr Manusu said that the Gradiflow technology would be key to Gradipore's future growth.

Other items of news from the annual meeting were:

· the Gradiflow division's small scale separations unit, the Babyflow, has passed beta testing and 50 units are currently being tested in advance of a proposed Australian launch in February 2000

· a scaled up version of the Gradiflow has been created and successfully tested at Gradipore

· the Haemostasis division is expecting approvals from the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for two products in coming months and intends to lodge two new products in 2000

· the Haemostasis division has also applied for two additional patents since June 1999 and is currently in discussions regarding product distribution

· the recently established Medical Applications Division is in discussions with potential partners for several different applications

· production capacity of GradiGels had been scaled up to coincide with Internet trading and two new ranges of GradiGels would be released during the first quarter of 2000

· a contract is close to being finalised for new company premises at French's Forest, a northern Sydney suburb

The meeting was also addressed by Mr Bob Lieb, a US pharmaceutical industry veteran of 25 years standing who is advising Gradipore on its US expansion strategy.

Biota Announces Regulatory Approval for Relenza in Canada

Biota Holdings Limited announced on 5 November that Glaxo Wellcome has received approval from the Therapeutic Products Program of Health, Canada, to market Relenza (zanamivir for inhalation) for the treatment of influenza in Canada.

This approval means that Relenza will be available in Canada for this coming winter. Up to four million Canadians develop influenza with an average of 70,000 being hospitalised each year. As many as 6000 Canadians may die annually from influenza and influenza related complications such as pneumonia. It is estimated the cost of influenza to the Canadian economy due to absenteeism, overtime, and the burden on the healthcare system is more than $1billion.

Glaxo Wellcome has filed applications to market the drug in 100 countries and have now received approvals in 24 countries. Biota's Chief Executive Officer, Dr Niall said; "Glaxo Wellcome are continuing to work actively on expanding the potential market for Relenza through ongoing clinical trials."

Relenza is administered by oral inhalation. This targeted approach enables the drug to be delivered directly to the site of the infection in the respiratory tract, the primary site of influenza virus infection in humans. With this approach the first dose begins to function within seconds to immobilise and kill the influenza virus.

Dr Hugh Niall said; "This targeted approach gives Relenza a distinct advantage over other neuraminidase inhibitors as the patient starts to recover immediately thus reducing the duration and severity of the infection. There are no nauseous side effects nor have resistant strains been seen in any of the clinical trials to date."

Bio-Rad Launches First Products on the Market from Proteome Technology

Bio-Rad Laboratories Pty Ltd is launching its new range of products arising from the commercialisation of proteome technology. This technology was developed under a Collaborative Generic Technology Grant funded by the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science and Resources and industry collaborators Bio-Rad Laboratories Pty Ltd, Gradipore Ltd, Hewlett Packard Australia Ltd, and Adelaide based Advanced Rapid Robotic Manufacturing (AARM) were each involved in differing but key areas of proteomics research. The research was undertaken at the Australian Proteome Analysis Facility (APAF) at Macquarie University, Sydney and the project managed by Macquarie Research Ltd, the University's commercial company.

Australia currently leads the world in Proteomics based research, an exciting technology that allows scientists to explore the impact of proteins in disease and other biological systems. The objective of the project has been to develop the second generation enabling technology for application of the proteome approach to biotechnology commercialisation projects in Australia. The three year project commenced in July 1997.

It is pleasing to report that already the research has produced commercial products, which include a series of new advanced scientific instruments to be marketed on a stand-alone basis. These instruments include an isoelectric focusing cell and a leading edge robotic instrument involved in the excision of "spots" from 2D Gels and PVDF Membranes, delivered into microtitre plates as well as an integrated set of reagents to help researchers prepare their samples. The products will assist researchers to achieve high throughput proteomics analysis at levels once thought impossible.

These instruments are being utilised in APAF to undertake biotechnology research and analysis work for Australian researchers in Government, Universities and industry. Further products will be launched as the project progresses. 

ASIAN NEWS

"The Furore Over GMOs Continues

It started off as a tiny ripple of protest. Before long, Europe had become the epicentre of the mammoth worldwide rumbling against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The tremors of disapproval that reverberate through the countries threaten to shake the very foundations of many transnational companies whose lifeblood lies in the GMOs.

Yet, the more interesting observation is the startlingly similar trend that weaves through Europe, Japan and Thailand. This current worldwide rejection of GMOs has nothing to do with any particular government initiative. Instead, it was birthed by the anonymous man in the street deciding it was high time to assert his consumer rights.

This is just the beginning. As the anti-GMOs campaign gains momentum many more countries will get sucked into the big whirlpool to crucify GMOs. And one can only gape at the terrifying tsunami of dissension engulfing countries one after another"

Reproduced from Asia-Pacific Biotech News, Vol 3 (22) Nov 1999 with permission

Japan Requires GM Food Safety Tests

Dancing a foxtrot on a tight rope with two partners simultaneously is a precarious feat. Bruised egos and sore toes would surface sooner or later. Even as Japan tries to keep the delicate balance between the US and the consumers at home, attempting not to risk the ire of one over the other, it is inevitable that Japan treads on sensitive toes.

Looking at recent developments, it does seem as though the government prefers to humour the consumers (and the subsequent profits) rather than the belligerent US. Consumers in Japan had kicked up a hullabaloo, advocating that genetically modified (GM) foods be labelled accordingly. Meanwhile, in July, Reuters reported that the US warned Japan that if it implements mandatory labelling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO), it could mislead consumers about food safety and disrupt trade.

Apparently, the strident protests of the consumers have been heard. The Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW) plans to introduce a legal requirement for manufacturers of GM food products to conduct safety tests on the products, rather than allow the current laissez-faire style of testing to persist. The government hopes to alleviate growing uneasiness over products manufactured using GM ingredients by putting a more stringent system in place.

The legal requirement would kick in next fiscal year. Manufacturers would have to apply for the registration for their GM food products. Experts would then screen the products according to safety guidelines to determine whether the GM food products are harmful. Presently, MHW has registered 22 varieties of GM farm products, such as soybean and corn.

Moreover, MHW prohibits GM food imports that have not passed the screening. However, because the rules were not legally binding and the decision to abide by the rules was left to the conscience of the manufacturers, there had been incidents where GM foods that failed the screening process had been imported and sold in the country. With the new legal requirement, manufacturers are legally required to recall GM foods that are found to have missed the inspection.

Taking the debate over GM foods one step further, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) has announced that it would introduce mandatory labelling of at least 30 GM food products, both local and imported, when it revises the Japanese Agricultural Standards next April. Soybeans, corn or potatoes grown with gene-altering technology and processed products using them will have to be labelled as such. Under the law, the majority of foods containing plant protein, such as tofu and corn snacks will have to bear such labels.

For quite such time, the Japanese have been rather pedantic about nutritional labelling. They believe that it is important to eat foods that are chosen based on accurate knowledge about the food products and their nutritional content, hence, it is essential that the public be provided with appropriate information on the nutritional content of the food products. Thus, it is little wonder that the Japanese consumers raised such a racket when they found out that GM foods had not been labelled as such and as a result, they have been eating GM food unknowingly. 

Since April 1992, MHW has been using a set of safety evaluation guidelines for food products that involve recombinant DNA technology. These guidelines apply only if the recombinant organism itself is not eaten, and if the product is equivalent, or apparently equivalent, to an existing food product. One such example was chymosin (a milk-coagulating enzyme, used in manufacturing cheese) manufactured by culturing genetically recombinant organisms. In February 1996, based on the Food Sanitation Investigation Council's report, MHW expanded its safety evaluation guidelines to include recombinant seed plants too.

And for now, it seemed as though Japan's consumer organisations have scored another victory. Japanese companies are beginning to acknowledge consumer needs over business profits. A telling illustration of this important change is the setting up of separate sections at supermarkets, despite not being required by the government, that segregates soy products, such as tofu and sauces, made with imported GM soybeans, and those that claim to use only the local variety. Of course, heavyweight companies like Itochu Corp., which would only import GM-free soybeans and Kirin Brewery Co., which would stop using GM corns, girded the voices of the consumers. Meanwhile, other companies are also scrambling onto the bandwagon.

Yet, the government's decision is expected to come under fire from major food exporting countries at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) end of this year. Japan is believed to be the world's biggest importer of GMOs as it is heavily dependent on agricultural imports from the US, the biggest producer of genetically altered crops.

According to Yoko Tomiyama, head of Consumers Union of Japan, American soybeans, most of them genetically modified, make up more than 90 percent of local consumption. Moreover, annual sales of transgenic crops to Japan, the number one market, is around US$11 billion for the US.

"We do not believe that obligatory GMO labelling is necessary, because it would suggest a health risk where there is none," said Isi Siddiqui, special assistant for trade to the US agriculture secretary. "Mandatory labelling could mislead consumers about the safety of these products and require segregation of GMO and non-GMO foods. I fear major trade disruptions and increases in food costs to consumers if Japan requires mandatory labelling."

Furthermore, Siddiqui said that Japan, as a member of WTO, is obligated to find the least trade-restrictive way of achieving its objectives. He maintained that there are a number of ways other than labelling, such as educational materials and public forums, to provide consumers with information on genetic engineering.

Certainly, the high-stakes foxtrot is not over yet for the Japanese government as it cautiously navigates its way around to find the compromise that would satisfy both the US and the consumers.

Reproduced from Asia-Pacific Biotech News, Vol 3 (22) Nov 1999 with permission 

Copyright 1999 Australian Biotechnology Association Ltd.


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