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Biopharm Company Says It Will
Continue Gene-Splicing Drugs
into Corn

Biotech company to isolate plants
The firm says it will keep its corn away from food but still use it in
medical products.
By PHILIP BRASHER
Des Moines Register Washington Bureau
11/16/2002

Washington, D.C. - The biotechnology company accused of nearly contaminating
the food supply with its pharmaceutical corn says it will grow the plants
only in isolated areas next year - far from food crops.

However, Texas-based ProdiGene Inc. will not stop using corn in its
development of vaccines and other medical and veterinary products, the
company's chief executive, Anthony Laos, said Friday.

The biotechnology industry is under heavy pressure from food companies to
either curtail the use of food crops such as corn for pharmaceuticals or to
move their production to remote areas such as the desert Southwest.

"We have looked at many different alternatives, and the best system
available today for this technology is corn," Laos said. "It's taken us
almost 20-some-odd years to get where we are on corn."

ProdiGene, a spinoff of Des Moines-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International,
faces up to $500,000 in fines for allegedly failing to properly manage sites
in Iowa and Nebraska where the company tested a type of gene-altered corn
for a swine vaccine.

ProdiGene's move to isolate its crops is a further blow to Iowa's hopes to
play a large role in the fledgling biotech industry.

The company's decision expands on a policy announced by the Biotechnology
Industry Organization not to grow crops for pharmaceutical or industrial
uses in an area stretching from eastern Nebraska to Ohio. Iowa officials
have been pressing the trade group to reverse that policy. One area
ProdiGene may use is the Sand Hills of western Nebraska, Laos said.

ProdiGene recently was forced to destroy 155 acres of conventional corn in
Pocahantas County, Ia., that may have cross-pollinated with stray biotech
plants that sprouted in a test site last year. In Aurora, Neb., the U.S.
Department of Agriculture has quarantined 500,000 bushels of soybeans that
were contaminated by ProdiGene plants.

The incidents prompted groups representing food manufacturers and millers to
call this week for further restrictions on pharmaceutical crops and test
sites.

"Consumer confidence in (biotechnology) and in the food supply is absolutely
paramount to us," said Rhona Applebaum of the National Food Processors
Association, which represents companies such as Campbell Soup and Frito Lay.

Gregory Jaffe, a biotech expert with the consumer advocacy group Center for
Science in the Public Interest, said ProdiGene's problems show that the
biotech industry "cannot be trusted to meet its obligations of safeguarding
the food supply and environment."

Corn has been the plant of choice for pharmaceutical and industrial uses
because it is relatively easy to engineer, grow, store and transport. The
plants also produce large amounts of proteins for use in drugs and
industrial enzymes. Tobacco also has been studied extensively, but it must
be processed very quickly, unlike corn, Laos said.

ProdiGene was formed in 1996 by several Pioneer scientists. While struggling
financially, the privately held company is attempting to commercialize
corn-derived products for making insulin and treating surgical patients.

Laos declined to identify the farmers involved in the two cases but said his
company was studying its production policies and training program.

The Iowa and Nebraska cases involved soybean fields located where ProdiGene
had grown its experimental corn last year. USDA officials said the company
failed to properly remove corn plants that sprouted in the fields this
summer and fall.

In the Iowa case, ProdiGene paid for having the neighboring 155-acre
cornfield harvested and trucked to a power plant for incineration. The
soybeans were plowed under.

Laos disputed the USDA's contention that the stray corn plants found growing
on the former test site had tassels on them, indicating that they could have
spread pollen to the neighboring corn field.

In the Nebraska case, the company thought it had destroyed all of the stray
corn plants in the former test site, only to have the USDA find one or two
stalks about a foot tall, Laos said.

Bits of those plants apparently were discovered in 500 bushels of soybeans
that were harvested from the field and sent to an elevator in Aurora, where
they were mixed with the 500,000 bushels already in the facility.

Those soybeans, worth about $2.8 million, are being purchased by ProdiGene
and are likely to be sold for production of diesel fuel. ProdiGene expects
to lose about $200,000 on shipping and other costs of disposing of the
soybeans.

Violations of USDA rules for biotech crops are punishable by fines and up to
a year of jail time.

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