The New York Times/Washington Post/Dow Jones/AP/Reuters
The Times led with: a prestigious medical journal is publishing a study suggesting that genetically modified food may be harmful, even though the research has been widely criticized by scientists and was found wanting by some of the journal's own referees.
The Lancet, a journal based in England, said had it decided to publish the study in part to spur debate and to avoid being accused of suppressing information on a controversial subject.
The study is also likely to be seized upon by opponents of such food in the United States, where consumers have until recently expressed little concern about the genetically altered corn and soybeans that have swept quietly into their diets.
Charles Margulis of the Washington office of Greenpeace was quoted as saying, "I think it gives it a certain scientific credibility. It's going to increase concern here in the United States." But the decision to publish the study is itself generating debate: some scientists say the Lancet has lowered its standards and subverted the peer review process.
The paper reports that rats fed genetically modified potatoes experienced a thickening of their stomach walls and other changes in their intestines.
The medical significance of this was not stated, but such a thickening suggests a reaction to some toxin or irritant.
The potatoes contained an implanted gene from the snowdrop plant that caused the potatoes to produce a lectin, a type of chemical found in nearly all plants that helps them fend off insects. Rats in the control groups were fed either ordinary potatoes or potatoes spiked with lectin.
Some of the changes in the stomachs of the rats fed either the genetically altered potatoes or the ones spiked with lectin seemed to come from the presence of the chemical, which some scientists said was not particularly surprising, because many lectins are toxic.
But other changes, specifically a thickening in the jejunum section of the small intestine, occurred only in rats fed the genetically altered potatoes, not the lectin-spiked or nonmodified potatoes. That, the authors said, suggested that the changes could have been caused by the genetic engineering itself, an assertion that raises much broader concerns about so-called biotech foods. The study was part of broader research done by Arpad Pusztai, a scientist formerly at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland. Last year, Pusztai ignited a furor in Europe when he said on a television show that rats fed the transgenic potatoes had experienced stunted organ growth and immune system problems.
The Rowett Institute did not renew Pusztai's employment contract and concluded in a review that his data did not support his conclusions. The Royal Society, Britain's senior scientific academy, reviewed Pusztai's work and earlier this year declared it too flawed to draw any conclusions about the effects of the transgenic potatoes, in part because because the experiments had lacked proper controls. The Royal Society yesterday issued a statement reiterating that conclusion and criticizing The Lancet for lending "some authenticity" to the study.
In his commentary, Horton said publication was not meant to be a "vindication" of Pusztai and his co-author of the paper, Stanley W. B. Ewen, a pathologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. The Lancet also published a sharp critique of the paper by scientists at the National Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products, which is based in the Netherlands. The critique criticized the study for not, for example, accounting for big differences between the genetically modified and ordinary potatoes that were not associated with genetic engineering. They also said the study did not find consistent effects. Pusztai could not be located and did not respond to an E-mail request seeking comment. Ewen declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement: "We are convinced that further experimental work is required to test the safety of G.M. foods."
Editors of peer-reviewed journals say it is not unusual to publish papers opposed by a minority of the reviewers. But some questioned whether it was proper to publish any article found scientifically lacking merely to present data to the public, especially when scientists can now publicize their own results on the Internet.
Floyd E. Bloom, editor of Science, was quoted as saying, "To me, it tarnishes the reputation of the journal that publishes it. If you're just going to take it because it's controversial, well, there are a whole lot of controversial things."
In 1988, the journal Nature published a seemingly implausible article saying that antibodies were effective even when diluted to the point where there were no molecules left, perhaps because the water retained some "memory" of the antibodies.
Nature published an editorial in the same issue warning readers to beware and said one reason it published the study was to avoid charges of suppressing an important discovery. A few weeks later, an investigative team sent by Nature to the laboratory involved debunked the study.
Charles Arntzen, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, was quoted as saying, "There is general scientific outrage at the Lancet for publishing data that its own reviewers rejected as unscientific. If it was anything else, like a way to prevent heart disease or cancer, they would never publish shoddy work." Libby Mikesell of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington was cited as saying that the Pusztai study involved too few rats, lacked proper controls and does not show that the intestinal changes were caused by the genetic modifications. Even if the changes are worrisome, that's not a reason to reject the technology overall, she said, adding "If something like this were to come through the U.S. regulatory system, . . . it would be subject to all kinds of toxicity tests and would go no further."
Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that opposes genetically modified food, was cited as praising the study and the Lancet's decision to publish it.
Dr Arpad Pusztai was cited in the Reuters story as saying he hoped the publication of his work in a leading medical journal would lead to more research and tests and stood by his claims that the effects of GM potatoes need to be looked at more closely.
He said the decision by The Lancet to publicize the data Friday added respectability to his research, adding, "I wouldn't be human if I said I didn't feel elated," and that he felt he had been wronged by the scientific community.
"What is important is that we are talking about the issue. I hope it will be a sort of push in the right direction. These things need to be tested."
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Last Updated on 10/15/99
By Karen Lutz