I have long been troubled by the aggressive public posture of biotech proponents. To be sure, the scale-up response theory of public debate was popular in other PR campaigns as well. But if it ever had a valid moment to be used, I think it's over.
Biotech will win over the public in several ways.
- The lack of bad news. Its been nearly two decades since GM crops were introduced and there aren't any photos of cows staggering or mothers weeping at gravesides. And it's not for lack of effort by opponents.
- Generational change. Older, more conservative and scientifically disinterested folks are being replaced with cohorts more at ease with science barely 20 years old. It's not revolutionary if it's always been around when you were.
- Wider benefits. The long slog to find high-impact uses for biotech in medicine is gathering payoff momentum. Which is preamble to this story:
The US Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved GTC Biotherapeutics Inc.'s ATryn, an anticlotting drug made using genetically modified goats that live on a farm in Charlton. GTC engineered the herd to secrete a special therapeutic protein in their milk.
"It's really a milestone event," said Eric Overstrom, chairman of biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who collaborated with GTC on some of its early research using goats. "This adds to the toolbox for the pharmaceutical industry."
Though ATryn is likely to have limited marketing potential because it would serve a relatively small pool of patients, the drug's approval could clear the way to produce many more drugs with genetically modified animals, an approach nicknamed "pharming."
European regulators approved the drug - and the novel production technique - in 2006.
In addition to goats, Overstrom said, drug companies could potentially use other animals, such as cows or rabbits, to produce drugs in their milk, blood, or even urine. Overstrom said animals could be particularly helpful in cultivating enzymes and other large molecules that are more difficult to produce using bacteria or individual cells. [More]
While this particular effort will not be a big money-maker, what it will do is start the process of making genetically engineered livestock more acceptable by the usual route - a slew of goat-milk jokes, serious 5-minute talking head debates on news shows; financial analysis of biotech firms in business media, etc.
Just like getting rich, maybe our scheduling for full biotech acceptance could stand some revision. Instead of being driven by next quarter's earnings reports, we could accept a pace that allows the above factors to work and folks around us to embrace without loss of face or unease.
To push the social validation of biotech even suggests we don't believe our own claims and data. If our science is well done it will endure, and advance past false charges. In the meantime, we can save ourselves considerable conflict by simply moving ahead past the detractors to the future.
Remember, we're winning.