Sunday, March 06, 2016

GE Mosquitoes and the Zika Virus.


                                                      Comments due by March 14, 2016
— In the expanding realm ruled by Randal J. Kirk, sliced apples don’t brown. Salmon grow twice as fast without swimming upriver to spawn. Beloved cats are reborn. And male mosquitoes are unleashed with the sole mission to mate, pass on a gene that kills their offspring, and die. A few decades ago, the foods and creatures nurtured by Mr. Kirk would have been found only in dystopian fantasies like those written by Margaret Atwood. But Mr. Kirk’s company, Intrexon, is fast becoming one of the world’s most diverse biotechnology companies, with ventures ranging from unloved genetically engineered creatures to potential cancer cures and gene therapies, gasoline substitutes, cloned kittens and even glow­in­the­dark Dino Pet toys made from microbes. Until recently, Mr. Kirk, 62, was a relatively unknown, self ­made billionaire, buying up or investing in companies in the biotech world. So when Intrexon acquired the British company Oxitec last summer, it attracted little attention as he extended his reach into genetically modified insects. But that move has thrust Mr. Kirk into the forefront of a scramble to control the Zika virus, suspected of causing babies to be born with tiny heads and damaged brains. It is rampant in Latin America and threatening the United States. While Zika was not on his radar when the deal was announced, Mr. Kirk now appears to be the prescient owner of a potential bioweapon — Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes, which he says could save millions of people from Zika by causing the population of wild disease ­transmitting mosquitoes to self ­destruct. “I think that we have the only safe, effective, field ­proven and ready­to-deploy solution,” Mr. Kirk, who is usually called R.J., said in an interview in his office here overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. In Piracicaba, Brazil, the population of wild mosquitoes has fallen 82 percent in the neighborhood where the mosquitoes are being tested, he said. If his plans to sell the engineered mosquitoes succeed, Mr. Kirk will fortify his near cultlike status among some investors and colleagues who marvel at his shrewd (and somewhat lucky) investments. Perhaps more important, a victory against the rapidly spreading epidemic could weaken opposition to genetically engineered organisms of all sorts, propelling many others out of the lab, onto the dinner table or into the environment. Now Mr. Kirk must persuade federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit health organizations to place orders. He must counter caution from the World Health Organization and federal officials, who question whether the technique will be effective on a large scale. And he must overcome qualms about genetic engineering that have prompted opposition to the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.
“We don’t have experience about living transgenic mosquitoes in the air,” said Dr. Artur Timerman, an infectious disease specialist in Brazil. “What will be the midterm or long­ term consequences of this?” Mr. Kirk is assembling a powerful lobbying effort, employing the law firm Sidley Austin in Washington as well as relying on one of Intrexon’s board members, Cesar Alvarez, the senior chairman of the prominent law firm Greenberg Traurig, and Intrexon’s head of corporate communications, Jack Bobo, who once directed biotechnology trade policy at the State Department. Dr. Luciana Borio, acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, told a House subcommittee on Wednesday that the agency was “greatly expediting” Oxitec’s application to test the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and would issue a draft environmental assessment very soon. But when asked by Representative Morgan Griffith, a Republican who represents the Virginia district in which Mr. Kirk has a farm, Dr. Borio said the F.D.A. would not eliminate the opportunity for the public to then comment on the draft. “What we don’t know right now is where the public stands on this in the setting of Zika,” she said later in the hearing. Golden Age of Biotech Selling his mosquitoes to combat an international epidemic could help relieve the pressure Mr. Kirk is under to prove that Intrexon is more than just a collection of odd science projects, and that it can actually make money and fulfill his vision for a new golden age of biotechnology. He considers this time to be a seminal moment in history, one in which the rapidly improving ability to read and write — and rewrite — the DNA code of life will make it possible to engineer all manner of organisms to perform specific tasks.
“I think this is the most significant industrial vector to occur in history,” he said, comparing it to semiconductor technology that gave rise to smartphones and the web. And the same DNA tools can be applied to numerous areas. Intrexon’s scientists, he says, “don’t care if they are working on a primary human T cell or an avocado.” Reflecting that vision, Intrexon uses the web domain name dna.com. The engineering of life is often called synthetic biology, a vaguely defined term meant to convey more systematic genetic manipulation than the cutting and pasting of a single gene that gave rise to early biotechnology companies like Amgen and Genentech. At its most distant point, synthetic biologists would sit at a computer designing life forms from scratch, then hit “print” and have the necessary DNA made to order to be inserted into a cell. Numerous companies are moving into the field, but Intrexon is “literally the elephant in the room of the synthetic biology industry,” said John Cumbers, chief executive of SynBioBeta, a fledgling trade group. His supporters say that if anyone can pull off such an enterprise it is R. J. Kirk, whom they call an uncommon visionary and quick study, though he lacks formal training in science. When Mr. Kirk tells people, as he often does, that he is just a country lawyer, they know they’re about to get a schooling in biology or business, interlaced with references to history, philosophy and opera. “He has an astonishing grasp of science,” said Dr. Samuel Broder, a former director of the National Cancer Institute who now runs Intrexon’s health division. Dr. Broder recalled one instance in which it took him a day to understand the intricacies of a genetic disease. Mr. Kirk, after hearing Dr. Broder’s explanation, got it in five minutes. Even the hedge fund manager Thomas U. Barton, who made his mark as a skeptical short­seller, gushes. “He understands all businesses,” he said. Still, there are skeptics. It is hard to judge the strength of Intrexon’s core technology, known as UltraVector, which is a computerized system for putting together modular DNA pieces to make complex genetic circuits. The company, saying it wants to protect its trade secrets, has not published articles about it in scientific literature. Some start­up companies, not Intrexon, have taken the lead in the hot new genome editing technique called Crispr. The biggest criticism is that Intrexon keeps announcing new acquisitions and new collaborations, dozens of them in all. Yet no product made with the company’s technology has reached the market, and it is not clear when any will. “There’s a mixture here of spectacle and speculation,” said Jim Thomas of the nonprofit ETC Group, which says that synthetic biology needs to be more rigorously regulated. “What’s curious about this is the way in which they are putting together all these controversial and often failing one
 trick companies and trying to wrap them up in a fancy synthetic biology front.” Intrexon’s shares have fallen to about $37 from near $70 in July, though biotech stocks in general have also fallen. The company’s market value is $4.3 billion, making Mr. Kirk’s 53 percent worth over $2 billion. One big commercial opportunity could be Intrexon’s pilot project to use genetically altered microbes to turn natural gas, which is cheap and abundant, into isobutanol, a liquid fuel that can be used in cars. Investors want to see if Intrexon’s partner, the energy giant Dominion, commits to building a commercial plant, which Mr. Kirk hopes could happen as early as this year. And the Oxitec mosquitoes, while not something Intrexon developed itself, offer a bonus that Mr. Kirk could not have predicted. The mosquitoes were developed mainly to fight dengue fever, and that alone, Mr. Kirk said, made it worthwhile to pay about $160 million for Oxitec. 3/6/2016 A Biotech Evangelist Seeks a Zika Dividend ­ The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/business/a­biotech­evangelist­seeks­a­zika­dividend.html?ref=international 6/10 But because Zika is spread by the same type of mosquito, the Oxitec insects, which contain a lethality gene — can be used. When the male mosquitoes are released to mate with wild females, the offspring die before reaching adulthood.
(NYT 3/6/2016)

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not opposed to GE or GMOs on principal. That is to say, I think they're here and they're probably here to stay and may offer solutions that in the end help protect the environment. That said, I'm no fan of forcing untested technology into the environment, and that seems to be the goal here. Time and time again, it has been seen when we just allow technology to be released into the environment without proper research into possible detrimental effects, and there are sometimes ecological repercussions. DDT as pest control, and more recently the Bayer pesticide which the EPA is moving to ban: http://www.environmentalleader.com/2016/03/04/epa-moves-to-ban-bayer-pesticide/

We can't let hindsight rule in this realm anymore. If we're going to live in a technology rich environment than we need to invest the requisite financial resources to studying the technology we develop. It is absolutely critical.

-Carl Wojciechowski

Grace Florian said...

I do not support Genetically Modified Organisms due to the fact that I think everything on Earth should not be changed by humans simply for our benefit. At the same time, it is hard for me to think about the people these GMO's could help in reference to the diseases the have. If the GMO's have been tested and are completely cleared in the sense that they will be successful doing the job they are meant to I support that effort. The downside to situations like these are that sometimes things don't go as planned and therefore, the GMO's were put into action for absolutely no reason and the interference with everyday life did not end up helping the way it was supposed to. As long as something such as this is guaranteed to help and not harm, I do think it is fair to help those in need even if that means GMO's and GE.

Anonymous said...

The Zika Virus is very interesting and I never really knew anything about. But this article was very informative. The fact that it has the chance to be a bioweapon is a little nerve racking.
I do not like that there is an idea of making profit when this issue of Zika needs to be combated. If this issue is as bad as people are making it should be handled properly just for the safety of all people.
-Andrew Ponticiello

Ariana Pdlla said...

Isn’t it unbelievable that the unimaginable is actually possible in today’s day? Who would ever think that science would advance this far. Biotechnology companies are growing majorly in their field and are creating some of the most incredible genetically engineered creatures. Recently one of the major viruses apparent currently is the Zika virus. The pika virus is caused by a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. It is causing babies to be born with damaged brains and many deformities. It is spreading quickly in Latin America and is beginning to become a threat to the United States. Thankfully our advancements in the science community is going to play a major role in battling this virus. Genetically engineered mosquitoes could save millions of people from the Zika virus. Although this is an incredible idea, there are possible consequences that can occur from unleashing this intense scientific “weapon” per se. Although I believe that this creation of genetically modified mosquitoes which are created to killed their offspring is an incredible idea, a part of me is scared for the negative effects which could occur from this decision. I personally think that the creation of these mosquitoes is extremely unnatural and it the outcome could be detrimental. However, with the Zika virus quickly spreading, perhaps it is a good idea to put a little trust into the scientific community and their creation.

Kaitlynn Brady said...

I completely disagree with this solution to the Zika virus. As impressive as science and technology is today, I do not think that it should be a "solution" to mask the real problems. We are not addressing the root cause of this issue, rather just attempting to eliminate the symptoms. I believe the Zika virus was caused by something man-made, whether it be the pesticides used in the past and today or nature's reaction to the introduction of GMO crops. We have no idea what the release of these new mosquitos could do to ecosystems. This may be far-fetched, as I am not a scientist, but what if these mosquitos also kill off bees, which are essential to food production. I am a firm believer that nature should never be altered by foreign, man-made inventions. Nature has been self-sustaining and self-eradicating its intruders long before humans and it will continue to do so. My suggestion would be to study the cause of this virus rather than just creating more technological solutions to eliminate the symptoms of the issue.

-Kaitlynn Brady

SUET SZE AU said...

-Written by SUET SZE AU

Zika virus has been a common concern around the world. Currently, there is no specific treatment or vaccine towards this terrible virus. It may cause babies to be born with tiny heads and damaged brains. In this situation, people turned to Oxitec, a company which produced genetically engineered mosquitoes. These genetically engineered mosquitoes potentially could solve the virus problem. However, I personally not agree to use genetically engineered mosquitoes to deal with Zika virus. It is because the genetically engineered mosquitoes may cause potential damages to the environment and may produce some super virus. Moreover, some people suspected Oxitec is the one who caused the wide spread of Zika virus as they conducted various test before in wild environment. Government should consider more before making decision or else the situation may be further worsen.

Fatimah M. said...

I really love the picture that goes along with this blog post. "Playing God with life on Earth." I don't agree with Genetically Modifying anything. I like to think that everything was created for a reason and to change their reason will eventually disrupt the cycle. It may not be noticeable right away, but it will turn into a bigger problem than we would've guessed.

Anthony Jones said...

Agreed Fatimah!

It was just last year that the World Health Organization found that glyphosate, the very chemical developed by Biotech giant Monsanto on their GMO food creations, was a carcinogen. When will we stop allowing big companies to patent life? Now we are even hearing speculations that it was this same biotechnology that caused the Zika virus in the first place. These companies are nasty, manipulative and need to be destroyed and all their executives jailed. Zika is claiming lives worldwide and it's inevitable spread should not be seen as an opportunity to make money. Biotech companies create major problems and then claim to be able to fix them with yet more and more technologies. If there were no problems, there would be no way to make money and thus, they keep making themselves needed. It is indeed a vicious cycle. I personally do not find these efforts commendable. Even if Zika does not stem from biotechnology, I still believe the cure will not be found within biotechnology. Apparently, we forgot that healthy wetlands do an excellent job of curbing mosquito populations as resident fish, frogs, and insects all prey on mosquito larvae, decimating mosquito populations tremendously. But why aren't we worldwide advocating for restoration and creation of healthy wetlands? Why do we insist on replicating the job the Earth does for us perfectly, free of cost?

Johnny Lopez said...

Although I am not fully against technological intervention is some ecological situations, I do not think biotechnologies is the appropriate way to combat the Zika virus. I do not like the idea of mixing profit with "environmental care", plus this company does not have a high-profile reputation for wanting to "save the world." Ideally, we must try to find a cure for Zika virus instead of trying to create "killer" mosquitos that can cause other side effects to biodiversity. I would not risk ruining Mother Nature in an effort to eliminate Zika virus, especially if scientists do not know if it will have lasting effects.

Christina Marciante said...

I don't believe we should genetically modify anything. Changing the genes of mosquito just sounds crazy to me. Plants are animals are all from the Earth and we should leave them how they were created. We are always trying to interfere for a profit and then creating a bigger mess in the first place. We don't have the right to effect the Earth in the tremendous ways we do because we haven't been on it for that long and there are many organisms that get effected by what we do and we just don't care. I don't think genetically modified mosquitoes is the solution to the Zika virus. We can't go killing off a bunch of mosquitoes without thinking of the future effects to it or how it will disrupt the ecosystem.

-Christina Marciante

Brian Frank said...

Although genetically engineering mosquitos that have the capability to kill off mosquitos that spread the zika virus would save tons of live is it our duty to do so. I completely understand finding and engineering vaccines that make us immune to the virus but have the bug on its own do the work for us is almost as if humans are playing "God." If such legislation was passed to allow for this we may not know the ramifications that would be to come afterwords. For example, these "super mosquitos" could possibly wipe out the majority of mosquitos and the food chain would be affected because populations of their predators would drop and could disturb many ecosystems where the mosquito is necessary for their to be a balance.

- Brian Frank

Ralph Green said...

We would be able to benefit from the genetic engineering of mosquitos to eliminate the spread of the Zika virus but I do not believe in the tampering of nature in such way. I do believe in better ways such as when we sterilized screw worm flies and then released them to outcompete the fertile males and through off the population, which worked. I just think that it's not our job to be playing God, there's a reason why he does it. I also tend to stray away from genetically engineered, modified, or whatever else there is when I get the chance to.

Megan Brown said...

Although the genetic engineering of mosquitoes could bring an end to the Zika virus, I personally do not think this will have a positive impact. No matter what ones religious beliefs are, "playing god" or creating something unnatural always comes with consequences that people do not understand. There are other ways that can be thought of to alleviate this problem. Genetically engineered and modified bugs and other creatures can possible create the ecosystem and food chain and become unbalanenced. This would not be good for anyone in my opinion

Rowan Lanning said...

While I can see the short term benefits from allowing these genetically engineered mosquitos to roam and eliminate the Zika virus, I can't help but think about the detrimental effects of this could be. We have no way of telling how the genetics would potentially mutate and evolve when in contact with other mosquitos. I'm reminded of the growth of antibiotic resistant virus strains - if these mosquitos ended up creating in turn a more powerful and strong form of the Zika virus, the damage would be evident. We as a species can't just keep trying to out perform nature. She has a way of catching up to us and working around the advancements we make in science and technology.

Chase Harnett said...

I agree in similarity with Rowann Lanning. I too see how this would be beneficial in the short term. If it works perfectly then there wouldn’t be much to worry about. However, when has anything gone exactly to plan when trying to control nature? Due to the almost complete inevitability of some unforeseen outcome from this attempt to stop the Zika virus I have to take the position of opposition. There are too many variables to consider. I cannot help but think, what if the released mosquitos are only a temporary fix and some how make the situation worse in the future? In this case, I have a “hands off” point of view. Perhaps due to my lack of knowledge in the area of GMO’s when it comes to insects.

C.H.

Rebecca McMann said...

There are many ways that we can change things in the world but there are many things to do this that we maybe shouldn't do. on one end we could get rid of Zika, but also what if something even worse comes from this being able to occur. When we do things unnatural there will always be negative points that will follow even the best goods. We can see this through history. Every time something is invented or changed we find out years later what negative aspects came out. using lead is one example on a small level. It started off as a great idea and now its poisoning people all over the place. If genetically induced bugs are created who knows what kind of negative impacts could come from this idea. There is no way to in depth reach full results without risking the environment. Who knows what positive conclusion could be the result but this idea may be a little to extreme to risk.

Erika Anzalone said...

I think this new strategy is a very unreasonable and destructive way to deal with the Zika virus. There are many other ways we can go about this problem and manipulating an organisms genes could lead to even greater issues in the future. Destroying one disease or virus can come back and hit us as more problems can occur down the line in our environment. So, no I do no agree with this method and I believe it is way to risky to perform a task like that because of the possible repercussions.

Erika anzalone

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