University Research & Genetic Engineering In The Midwest


This
January, Dr. Randall Prather, an animal science researcher at the
University of Missouri, announced a breakthrough in his effort to
create genetically engineered miniature pigs with organs suitable
for transplant into humans. The shortage of human organs available
for transplant has motivated some to look to other species, although
the human body readily rejects the foreign organs. By manipulating
the porcine genome to eliminate the gene suspected to be responsible
for producing an enzyme that triggers the rejection in the human
body, Prather hopes to create pig organs that will not be rejected.
So far, he has eliminated one copy of the gene, bringing cross-species
organ transplants, called xenotrans-plantation, one step closer
to reality. 

Press
coverage celebrates his efforts to end the loss of human life. Prather
is described as a farm boy and veterinarian’s son whose scientific
curiosity and desire to help farmers propelled him to agricultural
research. The description of Prather and his research offered by
the press meshes neatly with the pubic interest research mission
of the University of Missouri’s Land Grant College of Agriculture,
where Prather’s experiments are explained as a process of well
meaning scientists using sophisticated biotechnology to benefit
humankind. 

Yet
Prather’s research, and biotechnology in general, is widely
criticized for weakening rural farm economies, creating products
harmful to the environment and human body, and increasing the corporate
share of public food and health care spending. What does Prather
and his home institution, Missouri’s publicly funded Land Grant
College of Agriculture, expect to accomplish through this research? 

Among
those lauding Prather’s contribution in the news is a representative
from Immerge Bio- theraputics, whose relationship to Prather’s
research remains unexplained. Immerge is new firm, a joint venture
between Bio-transplant, a Boston-based biotechnology company, and
Novartis, a multinational life sciences giant. Immerge Biotheraputics’s
mission is to build a business selling organs for transplant. For
the company, Prather’s pigs are an attractive idea because,
if successful, they will combine the low costs of agricultural production
with high revenues of pharmaceuticals and medical technologies. 

Biotransplant
began funding Prather’s research in the early 1990s. Since
that time, the company has given at least $750,000 for the pig research.
In return for their financial support, the company receives first
crack at commercializing and marketing any invention that comes
from the research. Rather than placing research in the public realm,
as has been the long tradition at Land Grant Universities, MU has
patented Prather’s efforts and licensed them exclusively to
Biotransplant. According to their agreement, Prather’s ability
to publish, present his research, or work on research that may overlap
with this project is restricted by the company. Like much of the
university research today, Pra- ther’s efforts are not public
interest research, but are aimed to enhance and protect value for
the funding company. 

Private
funds are only part of Prather’s story. Prather has also received
more than $1.1 million in public money from the National Institutes
of Health, as well as funds from the Department of Agriculture and
through the university. 

In
addition, the National Institutes of Health gave Immerge $1.7 million
under the Advanced Technology Program, a program that “bridges
the gap between the research lab and the market place.” Using
an economic development rationale, federal research agencies since
the 1980s have offered research grants to private firms for product
development. 

In
addition, through the National Institutes of Health Small Business
Innovation Research program, another nearly $1.3 million in public
dollars was given to Biotransplant between 1996 and 2001. The SBIR
funders overlooked the fact that Sandoz, a multinational pharmaceutical
firm now subsumed into Novartis, has held some equity in Biotransplant
since the early 1990s.  

Today,
Novartis holds 67 percent ownership in Immerge Biotheraputics. Altogether,
federal agencies have invested five times more money in Prather’s
research than the private sector has. The scandal of Prather’s
pigs is more than the private purchase of public university research,
it is the transformation of public efforts into private benefits
for an agribusiness and pharmaceutical giant. 

MU,
like other Land Grant Universities, was founded under the Hatch
Act of 1887, which directed these universities to “have for
their purpose the development and improvement of the rural home
and rural life and the maximum contribution by agriculture to the
welfare of the consumer…” and to provide these services
to the public regardless of social status. In the early 1980s, new
federal law and a string of court decisions resulted in the legal
inclusion of university research and living organisms as private
property. This opened the opportunity for the university to gain
royalty revenues by patenting and selling university inventions
to private firms. Nowhere has this been more the case than in biotechnology.
According to the U.S. patents office, in the class of patents called
“multicellular organisms,” universities hold 14 times
more patents than all other patent holders, including industry.
Universities make nearly 80 percent of their royalties from life
science related inventions. 

In
addition, Land Grants have seen their traditional base of financial
support erode—funds allocated by the federal government that
for a century have let each university devise a research agenda
based on local and regional needs. This decentralized decision making
has been replaced by competitive grants organized around a federal
agenda that prioritizes biotechnology and commercially applicable
research. 

These
changes leave farmers, whose needs and concerns are often at odds
with the big companies, without support. Land Grants have traditionally
developed new public strains and varieties of plants and animals,
available to farmers at no cost. Today, Land Grant efforts are encapsulated
in patented, private varieties that benefit the most wealthy of
the agricultural community, the agribusiness companies that can
afford to pay license fees. Prather’s pigs are but one example
of this trend. 

In
order to attract industry dollars, federal competitive funds, and
possible lucrative royalties, MU needed to invest in capital improvements
and build its research capacity. Collaboration between the University
and State of Missouri has resulted in a dizzying array of tax incentives,
joint research initiatives, and new construction projects to support
Missouri’s fledgling agricultural biotechnology industry. 

Efforts
began in 1997 when U.S. Senator Christopher Bond, Missouri’s
biotechnology cheerleader, secured $1.2 million per year in pork
barrel handouts from the Department of Agriculture, available almost
exclusively to researchers at the University of Illinois and the
University of Missouri. Originally a brainstorm of Monsanto CEO
Robert Shapiro, criteria for applicants include interest in research
outcome by a private firm. In 1999, the National Science Foundation
granted $7.5 million for a greenhouse as part of a project to map
the corn genome. The university claims this map will benefit plant
breeders, yet only those breeders able to afford the high technology
investments to use genetic information will benefit, certainly not
farmers. More recently and also through Bond’s efforts, MU
received $29 million from NASA, matched with nearly $30 million
from the State of Missouri to build a Life Sciences Center that
will house 50 new faculty positions. Groundbreaking for the new
building took place last fall during a state budget crunch, a university-wide
hiring freeze, and rumored dismantling of some faculty positions
to make way for the new life sciences. 

Not
only the university, but the state of Missouri too has jumped onto
the biotechnology bandwagon. The Danforth Plant Science Center,
dedicated to plant biotechnology research and “rapid development
and commercialization of promising technologies and products”
received a $50 million plus land donation from the Monsanto Foundation
and $25 million in state income tax credits from the state of Missouri.
Located across from Monsanto’s headquarters in Creve Coeur,
discoveries made at the Danforth Center will be patented and licensed
to the private sector, while individual research projects will draw
funding primarily from public sources. 

Benefits
to life science companies also include $21.5 million per year in
research funds from Missouri’s tobacco settlement payment,
a state sales tax exemption, and $1 million in property tax credits.
In another new twist in university-industry relations, MU and Washington
University have invested in a life science seed capital fund to
which the state has approved $20 million in tax credits for investors.
Seed capital, considered more risky than venture capital, is made
available to small firms sometimes before the firm is formed. Future
plans include a 90,000 square foot technology park and small business
incubator at the university, also to be funded by the state. 

These
funds are the most prominent aspect of increasingly sophisticated
university involvement in aid to industry. In 1999, Monsanto considered
sending its subsidiary, Integrated Protein Technologies, out of
state. IPT “grows” enzymes and proteins in field crops
for use in pharmaceuticals. To keep the company, the Missouri Department
of Economic Development offered space at a new research park on
conservation land, a deal to trade up to $3 million for research
at a public Missouri University “paid” for by Monsanto’s
income tax credits. University scientists and administrators met
with IPT officials to discuss potential research topics, which included
many hard science topics as well as “public acceptance,”
“media” and “marketing” of biotechnology. While
the research park deal fell through because of local citizen concern,
MU has undertaken a number of research projects for IPT, and reviewing
its end of the year accomplishments, claimed its successful partnership
with IPT as an exemplary use of university resources. 

The
actions of Missouri’s Land Grant University and state economic
development agents might be less of a concern if some consensus
existed that agricultural biotechnology was a public benefit. Yet
while the University of Missouri joins industry to avidly promote
genetically engineered foods and fiber, only the smallest resources
are used to address hazards and risks of the new technologies. 

While
the race is on to create the transgenic pig capable of producing
donor organs, what research is taking place to determine if it is
safe? The transfer of pig organs to humans may introduce porcine
viruses into human hosts, leading some virologists to reject the
concept of xenotransplantation on the grounds of possible epidemic
viral outbreaks. In order to turn the size of profit these companies
expect, the purchase of organs makes xenotransplantation necessarily
more expensive than human-to-human transplants. With transplants
already too costly for most, the drive to make money from their
exclusively patented organ transfer makes xeno-transplantation an
option only for the wealthiest. While lack of basic health care
and sanitation remain the biggest threats to public health, is xenotransplantation
truly a public priority? 

For
genetically engineered field crops, questions concerning soil health,
beneficial insects, pollen drift, and new superweeds have hardly
been addressed. With widespread contamination already negating the
possibility of 100 percent non-engineered corn, who is doing the
research to certify that IPT’s pharmaceutical corn will not
escape via pollen or seed into the food supply? Scant attention
has been paid to how ownership of the technology promotes consolidation
among agricultural companies and weakens family farms and rural
economies. No one has launched a serious investigation into the
long-term affects of eating genetically engineered foods on human
health. The amount of money that the USDA allocates to biotechnology
risk assessment, at $1.5 million for 2002, would cover expenses
for only one of the thousands of product-development biotechnology
research projects taking place today. At MU, only one research project
over ten years has looked to uncover risk. MU’s financial interests
have led it to join industry and the federal government in minimizing
those concerns and chastising those who raise them. Public interest
research questions may be more pertinent than ever, yet no one has
stepped up to take on the pubic interest role that Land Grants have
vacated. 

MU
and the state of Missouri use the rubric of economic development,
claiming that the public is served through service to industry.
The peculiar twist of logic allows Jack Burns, former vice provost
for research at MU, to invoke the public service mission to help
industry. In an editorial entitled “University becoming economic
engines for states” he says, “It is our obligation to
help migrate new discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.”
Senator Bond refers to the stretch of interstate 70 from Kansas
City to St. Louis that encompass Missouri’s universities and
biotechnology related industries, as the new “Silicon Valley
of biotechnology,” as if the state’s midwestern economy
might pupate into something resembling southern California. 

Not
only is Missouri racing to secure Silicon Valley status, but so
is nearly every other Midwestern state. Indiana has invested nearly
$50 million into biotechnology research and development and plans
to spend some portion of their tobacco settlement funds on agricultural
and medical biotechnology research. To create Michigan’s Life
Sciences Corridor, both Dow and Pharmacia (formerly Monsanto) have
partnered with Michigan State University and the University of Michigan,
while the state legislature allocated all $50 million annually for
20 years of the state’s revenues from tobacco settlement funds
to universities, research institutions, and the industry. In Iowa,
the long-term partnership between Iowa State University and Pioneer
Hi-Bred has been infused with new energy and monies, most notably
$10 million annually for plant biotechnology research from the state
legislature. In the same budget the state cut $250,000 from the
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, housed at Iowa State
University. 

The
sum of these efforts through time and across many states and universities
adds up to a tremendous public investment in a class of technologies
of dubious public merit. As is the case with Prather’s pigs,
federal financial support for a genetic engineering product can
outstrip a company’s own investment. From this angle, genetically
engineered foods, fibers, and medicines look to be more a creation
of the public sector aide to private industry than the result of
supply and demand. Rather than benefiting people, these unproven
technologies manage to squeeze further corporate profit from the
consumer food dollar and health care budget. The genetic engineering
issue reaches far beyond our supermarket shelves and coffee shop
creamer, deep into our universities, state governments, and federal
agencies from which these products emerge.                              Z