A slow-moving U.S. project to manufacture anti-diarrhea medicine using the milk of transgenic goats is getting a new start in Brazil, where it is receiving heavy funding from the surging South American power.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, plan to ship goat semen to the Brazilian state of Ceará, where local scientists have received $3.5 million from Brazil’s government to establish a herd of transgenic goats and initiate human trials on their milk.
The Brazil case illustrates how anti-biotech sentiment in the U.S. may be pushing some biotechnologies toward the developing world, where science budgets are growing and scientists are eager to master these new technologies. “In Brazil you have a country that is forward-thinking, and [has] put into place the regulatory apparatus,” says James Murray, a professor at UC Davis who developed the technology for creating goats whose milk is loaded with human proteins that kill bacteria responsible for diarrhea.
Murray says one factor that weighed in the decision to transfer the technology was the long delay by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in deciding how to regulate engineered food and dairy animals. The FDA studied the question for more than 10 years before issuing its guidance to manufacturers in January 2009, by which time Murray was already in discussions with colleagues in Brazil.
No transgenic animal has yet been approved for use as food anywhere in the world. The FDA is currently weighing its first application, by AquaBounty Technologies, to commercialize a variety of transgenic Atlantic salmon engineered to grow twice as quickly as unaltered salmon. However, the genetically modified salmon, dubbed “Frankenfish” by opponents, have generated substantial controversy in the United States.
Such sentiments weigh on American laboratory research, too. The goat project has been underway at UC Davis for “a couple of decades,” says Murray. It started with experiments using mice. But U.S. support for the idea has hardly been overwhelming. Murray says the project currently survives on a $400,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess the risks of transgenic animals. “The only money available is to look at environmental safety. It’s a backwards way of funding the research,” says Murray. “We haven’t gotten enough to move the research forward; we are four or five years behind where we should be.”
The view is different in Brazil, a country that is dedicating growing resources to research and development–now about 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product, according to official figures–and is keen to prove it can handle cutting-edge technology.