Dan Murphy: Redefining GMOs

In this era marked by Grand Canyon-sized divides among Americans, there’s one subject that seems to unite people, no matter how divergent their political persuasions. That issue is captured in three little letters: GMO.

As we sit here in 2018, we calmly take for granted the monumental advances in technology that impact our daily lives. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, we expect to access unlimited information content, video streams or music selections, all on demand, all delivered instantly on our smart phones.

We never give a second thought to the physical infrastructure, the technological capabilities, the incredible R&D that makes it all possible. It’s just part of modern life and integral to our 21st century lifestyles.

But for all our sophistication with high-tech gadgetry, a significant percentage of consumers exhibit fear and loathing of anything connected with biotech. They — we — trust implicitly that the telecom manufacturers, the Internet providers, the tech companies are all responsible actors in terms of the safety and efficacy of the devices that rule our lives.

But the idea of scientists using biotechnology to make crops hardier or more productive?

Unthinkable! Outrageous! A scourge on America that must be stopped, or at least avoided at all costs.

What’s more, an equally significant percentage of people, while they might not be actively opposed to biotech as applied to food production, they neither approve of farmers growing GMO crops nor desire to consume any products not labeled “GMO-free.”

I’ve yet to find a single adult who proclaims, “I like GMOs. I’m glad the science is there to help make agriculture more productive.”

I’ve never even heard anyone utter that first sentence.

To paraphrase the famous movie line: “You lost me at GMO.”

Breakthrough Genetic Therapy
Now, however, there’s a development underway that not only advances biotechnology in a way that could positively affect millions of Americans — which Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops have not, admittedly — and coincidentally, underscore the value of using animals in medical research.

Talk about killing two activist themes with one project.

As reported by UPI, a research team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain is using gene therapy to trigger weight loss in mice, as well as decrease insulin resistance, both of which are involved in the development of type 2 diabetes. As the report noted, the genetic manipulation stimulated production of a protein (labeled FGF2) normally secreted naturally by several organs in the body to maintain proper tissue metabolism.

Using what amounts to genetic engineering to accelerate weight loss? That alone would be huge (no pun intended). But consider this: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 30 million Americans — more than one in every 10 adults 20 years or older — have diabetes, many of them undiagnosed and unaware of their condition.

Next time you pay a visit to the doctor’s office, ask him or her how successful they are with treating diabetic patients, how compliant most of them are with managing their condition, how motivated most are about losing weight and sticking to a prescribed diet.

Diabetes is, unfortunately, a deadly disease, one that’s reaching epidemic proportions in the United States, with a million and a half new patients developing the condition every year.

“This is the first time that long-term reversion of obesity and insulin resistance have been achieved upon a one-time administration of a gene therapy, in an animal model that resembles obesity and type 2 diabetes in humans,” Veronica Jimenez, a researcher at University of Barcelona, said in a news release. “The results demonstrate that it is a safe and effective therapy.”

The research team also found that the gene therapy protected against tumor formation in the liver in response to a “hypercaloric” diet — you know … like the ones they sell at fast-food drive-thrus.

And here’s the clincher: When administered to non-obese mice, the gene therapy promoted healthier aging, while preventing age-associated weight gain and insulin resistance.

So let’s see: This therapy potentially could stimulate weight loss, reduce insulin resistance in diabetic and pre-diabetic patients and protect against the ill effects of the aging process.

If a representative sampling of the population were asked, “Would you support a new medical treatment that triggers weight loss and could potentially ‘cure’ diabetes,” what do you suppose the answers would be? I’m guessing the responses would be overwhelmingly positive.

If you then explained that this treatment involved “gene therapy,” do you really think people would react the way they do with GMOs?

“No way! Prevent obesity and cure diabetes? Not if it involves messing with genetics!”

Seriously, where’s the great gulf between genetic engineering of plants to deal with crop disease (like with Bt corn) and manipulating genes in mice and eventually people to deal with a deadly disease like diabetes?

You know the answer to that question. Too bad most Americans never get asked exactly that.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.