ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
25 January 2003

'THE PUSZTAI AFFAIR JUST WON’T DIE!'

Recently I asked one of the people running the BBC's science message board how the debate that followed the BBC's two recent Radio 4, "Seeds of Trouble", programmes on GM, compared with other discussions on the board. "Oh," she said, "It's been very different - much nastier and it's attracted all these experts!"

In fact, the messageboard discussion has at times been like a biotechnologists' reunion with Phil Dale, Roger Hull, Mike Wilson (his prolonged rant was mysteriously deleted), Alan McHughen, and Denis Murphy, all among those chipping in.

Below is a thread of the discussion that focused on Dr Arpad Pusztai's research. This too was marked by a series of "expert" interventions.

During the original furore over Dr Pusztai's research, amongst his most prominent attackers were Prof John Pickett, one of the reviewers of Pusztai's Lancet article, Dr John Gatehouse, the genetic engineer who had originally developed the GM potatoes that Pusztai was testing, and Prof Ray Baker of the BBSRC - the UK's public funding body for the bio-sciences. The BBSRC, Gatehouse and Pickett, all popped up once again to fight their corner on the BBC messageboard.

Below is a slightly edited version of the discussion - the url for the full version (complete with typos!) is given.

What is perhaps most notable, in relation to the original controversy, is the number of previously contested points that are conceded. Amongst the more notable concessions is that concerning lectins. Dr Phil Dale is among many scientists and others (including cabinet ministers!) who claimed that Pusztai's results were unremarkable because they involved the use of lectins, and lectins "are well-known toxins".
[http://ngin.tripod.com/articleMMo.htm] This claim is exposed here for the nonsense it is.

But in the discussion other points of clarification are often not responded to or are misleadingly responded to!! Watch out, for instance, for the phrase, "I write to correct an inaccuracy..." And when the man from the BBSRC says, "I was surprised to see the inference that BBSRC was responsible for funding Dr Pusztai's research", note that nobody had said that they were. Watch out too for the glosses, as when we are told by a scientist who knows better that the GM potatoes had "a slightly different effect". The question for science is, of course, was the effect statistically significant. The answer is yes which means the effect can't then be glossed away as "small" or "slight".

For a comprehensive introduction to the Pusztai affair see the 'Dr Pusztai articles':
http://www.btinternet.com/~clairejr/Pusztai/puszta_1.html
Articles listed on left.

For all the discussion of 'Seeds of Trouble' on the BBC science messageboard:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-perl/h2/h2.cgi?state=threads&board=radio4.science&
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BBC SCIENCE MESSAGEBOARD
http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-perl/h2/h2.cgi?thread=%3Cmod.1041978616-1754.43%40forum3.thdo.bbc.co.uk%3E&find=%3Cmod.1041978616-1754.43%40forum3.thdo.bbc.co.uk%3E&board=radio4.science&sort=Te

Topic - Radio 4 Science

Errors and omissions  Andrew Aikman - 1st post - 7 Jan 2003 22:30

...I was disappointed not to hear from Dr Pusztai, formerly of the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, on this and other matters. After his research into the effects of GM material on mice was published, he was summarily dismissed. Did he say something his paymaster didn't like? [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Nick Clark - 1st post - 8 Jan 2003 13:44

...Ah Dr Pusztai's reseach is an interesting one, his research was never peer-reviewed. It was published in the Lancet but only after it was forced to, and in the editoral of that issue it said that the report FAILED its normal review process. Surprise Surprise he found that if you feed underfed rats a known poison they suffer from that poison. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Claire Robinson - 1st post - 8 Jan 2003 16:43

It is untrue that Dr Pusztai's Lancet research was not peer reviewed or that it "failed" the review. It was peer reviewed, by six reviewers, more than are usually employed. It is common when just three peer reviewers are used to go ahead and publish even if one out of the three object to the paper. In this  case, just one of six reviewers, Prof Pickett, opposed publication but he did not go through the usual channel of objection, which is to list one‚s  objections to The Lancet which then presents them to the author to give the author a chance to review/rewrite/re-do research. Pickett did not do this; prior to the Lancet‚s publication, he went public in the media with blanket statements to the effect that the science was bad and that the paper should not  be published. This is not at all accepted scientific practice but has unfortunately become common behaviour in the GM field by pro-GM scientists. I interviewed Pickett about his precise objections and presented them to Pusztai, who pointed out in great detail that based on the criticisms made, Pickett either cannot have read the paper or cannot have understood it.

It is incorrect to claim that the GNA snowdrop lectin used in the GM potato experiment was a known poison. The design and methodology of Pusztai‚s experiment was approved by the UK‚s main funding body, the BBSRC, winning a grant of 1.6 million pounds of taxpayer money over 27 other submissions. One of the reasons the BBSRC had such confidence in the experiment‚s design and methodology (which were followed to the letter) was that great care had been taken to choose a lectin which was known and proven not to be toxic to mammals. It is also incorrect to say that the rats were fed raw potatoes and that these are generally toxic; in fact, toxic effects were found with the GM potatoes when they were fed raw AND when they were fed cooked. These toxic effects were not found with rats fed non-GM potatoes spiked with GNA lectin, indicating that the toxicity came from the GM process itself and not from the GNA lectin, which, as we have said, is not toxic. Some of Pusztai‚s critics claimed that a "poisonous line of potatoes" was used, which is a mysterious statement based on no evidence at all but which must horrify Prof John Gatehouse, who co-developed the GM potatoes with Axis Genetics at the research station in Rothamsted and passed them on to Pusztai. I am sure that Prof Gatehouse would be interested to hear that libels are circulating about his passing poisonous potatoes to Pusztai (Prof Gatehouse part-owned the patent on this potato and was set to benefit from its commercialisation in the human food chain).

As for the claim that the rats were "underfed", they were fed according to the normal methodology for such experiments, which is to slightly underfeed young rats for a short period in order that any toxic or anti-nutrient effects show up clearly. Note that the control rats, not fed GM foods, had exactly the same amount of protein and energy value in their diet and these did not show ill effects.

It is a serious matter to circulate untruths about professional scientists and publications like The Lancet and I believe that we all have a duty to at least try to get our facts right. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions John Gatehouse - 2nd post - 11 Jan 2003 15:42

The Pusztai affair just won‚t die! He is still seen as the person who told the truth about testing GM plants. For those who have worked with him, it is easy to see why this should be the case. He is a charismatic personality - but he isn‚t always right.

Snowdrop lectin was indeed chosen for expression in GM potatoes because it was known to be non-toxic to mammals (as Pusztai showed). The lectins  in different plant species differ in their properties - the widely held but incorrect belief that all lectins are poisons may derive from the well-known toxicity of the lectin from kidney beans. Snowdrop lectin is, however, toxic to several insect pests of crops, and therefore could be produced in genetically modified potatoes to protect them.

So I agree that the Pusztai and Ewen paper in the Lancet should not be criticised on the grounds that the potatoes used in the experiments had been engineered to be poisonous - this is untrue. However, as I tried to state at the time - though the Lancet declined to publish the letter I submitted - the data simply established that the GM potatoes tested had a slightly different effect on rat intestines than either unmodified potatoes, or unmodified potatoes with snowdrop lectin added. Pusztai and Ewen assumed that this difference was due to some effect (unspecified) caused by genetic engineering, and that this invalidated the whole testing procedure for GM plants.

If you want to believe that argument, you will - but it isn‚t sound. Pusztai and Ewen didn‚t establish that the difference actually was caused by the genetic engineering. If you take an unmodified potato, and put it through the tissue culture procedures which the GM potato had undergone, but do not attempt to introduce any foreign DNA into it, you end up with plant material that was different to what you started with (this is called somaclonal variation, and has been used in „conventional‰ plant breeding). Even if the effect were due to the genetic engineering, the United States Food and Drug Adminstration testing procedures for GM plants (introduced in 1992) specifically take into account „unexpected‰ or „unintended‰ effects of the process. The unexpected effects can be anticipated and tested on a basis of knowledge of the plant that has been engineered. Unexpected effects are equally likely from other „conventional‰ methods of plant breeding, and testing for deleterious changes is a normal part of quality control when new varieties are produced. The potatoes used in Pusztai‚s experiments had not gone through this „quality control‰ because they were material for research, not for introduction into the marketplace. I know this because I was involved in producing them.

Getting the facts right is important, and so is interpreting data correctly. So was Pusztai right? Whatever the scientific argument, when the population of the USA has been eating GM food for the last 6 years with no evidence of ill effects, it seems a bit difficult to maintain the argument that the stuff is inherently harmful. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Dave Vernon - 2nd post - 12 Jan 2003 19:00

6 years is not exactly a long time to know whether or not something is harmful or not?!? Some degenerative diseases related to diet take half a lifetime to affect people. OK so you can't say that the issues with the rats (of which I know nothing, having never read the article) were down to the GM potatoes, but you can't say they weren't either! Surely it means that more investigation is required to prove which it was? [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Jonathan Matthews - 4th post - 12 Jan 2003 22:49

Regarding the comments about the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA carries out NO tests of its  own. It is not even obliged to review company safety data. Any material is provided by the biotech companies on a purely voluntary basis. There are NO mandatory food safety testing obligations on the biotech companies in the US. Sometimes the companies don't provide information to the FDA even when requested to do so. There is nothing the FDA can do about this. Two separate US reports in the last week (one from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and one from Consumers Union) have drawn attention to the gaping holes in the US regulatory system. Both reports strongly criticised the quality of what FDA review does occur. The CSPI's scientists said they had found that obvious errors had been made.

Regarding evidence of ill effects, didn't it take about 30 years to show the link between smoking and cancer? Here's an interesting quote on this, "Ben Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, near London, who is a proponent of the potential benefits of genetic modification of crops.... argues that, under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a 'monumental disaster' to be detectable." Nature, Volume 398:651 [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Peter Dwyer - 1st post - 12 Jan 2003 19:07

In response to the statement: "..the population of the USA has been eating GM food for the last 6 years with no evidence of ill effects..", I would just point out that it takes a lot longer than 6 years for the intake of cholesterol (polysaturated fats) to result in heart and other circulatory diseases. I am sure there must similarly be other slow processes which result in disease and that do not immediately spring to mind, so I think it is a bit soon (and irresponsible) to claim that GM food is safe on this basis.

Peter Dwyer [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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Fair point John Gatehouse - 3rd post - 13 Jan 2003 14:38

This is a fair point - but as wiser heads than mine have stated, it is quite impossible to prove that something is absolutely "safe". Safety can only be based on experience, and an absence of evidence for harm.... [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Dallas Simpson - 3rd post - 13 Jan 2003 13:59

But the real question surely must be whether such evidence can be easily observed and reported...

If you're not looking for it you'll never find it! [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Claire Robinson - 3rd post - 13 Jan 2003 17:26

Regarding John Gatehouse's statement that the GM spuds in Dr Pusztai's experiments were for "research" and not for introduction into the marketplace, I can only say that Dr Pusztai was very clear that they were intended for commercialisation for human consumption... [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions John Gatehouse - 4th post - 14 Jan 2003 09:07

Interesting - someone who had no involvement in research I collaborated in, but who knows more about it than I do! I'm sorry, but as far as I am aware this is factually incorrect. The potatoes were research material. Apart from anything else, they weren't resistant enough to insect pests to make it worth introducing them commercially! The intention was to continue the research to produce crops that could be introduced into the market place. As I  pointed out in my first posting, Dr. Pusztai is not always right. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Claire Robinson - 4th post - 13 Jan 2003 23:27

I have looked out my earlier correspondence with Arpad Pusztai about the GM potatoes research. In it, Dr Pusztai explained that Axis Genetics had a profit-sharing agreement with his institute, the Rowett, for the commercialisation of the GM potatoes. Axis Genetics, as a very small biotech company, would hardly have invested heavily in this project without that being the agreed goal.

My notes also make me wonder about another statement by John Gatehouse. ... after splicing, selection of the "right" GM lines is supposed to eliminate unwanted traits. If John Gatehouse in producing the spuds for research failed to do this then we would seem to be looking at a very serious waste of everybody's time not to mention taxpayers' money.

As for the argument that millions of Americans have eaten GM food for 6 years with no ill effects, anyone who can think scientifically would laugh this out of court. Food related illnesses have gone up tenfold in the US since 1994, roughly coinciding with the introduction of GM foods. Nobody can say this is due to GM foods as no epidemiological research or monitoring has been done, but equally nobody can say it isn't. We simply don't know because nobody is looking. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions John Gatehouse - 5th post - 14 Jan 2003 11:30

The first paragraph of the above reply agrees more or less exactly with what I wrote previously, so that point can be eliminated.

...This forum is not a place to make personal remarks, or to respond to them, so I will pass over the gratuitous insult included in this posting. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Andrew Mac - 1st post - 13 Jan 2003 12:57

From the outset - I should make it clear that I work for the science funding agency mentioned in the previous message (BBSRC).

Reading through the discussions on this message board I was surprised to see the inference that BBSRC was responsible for funding Dr Pusztai's  research - this research was actually funded by the fore-runner of the Scottish Executive. It is therefore untrue to say that BBSRC approved Dr Pusztai's research methodology and the suggestion that the weight of "the UK's main funding body" was behind this research serves only to cloud the issue further. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions Claire Robinson - 2nd post - 13 Jan 2003 16:32

Andrew Mac is right about the funding coming via a Scottish governmental agency rather than the BBSRC for whom he works but to judge from the  following article in which Dr Pusztai details the history of this piece of research, the BBSRC played a very definite advisory role in approving his research. I quote: "In 1995 the then Scottish Office of Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department (SOAEFD) advertised a research programme on safety aspects of GM crops. Until then, there was not a single publication in peer-reviewed journals on the safety of GM food... SOAEFD solicited project proposals... we had to write a detailed proposal, something like 50 pages. It had to specify what we wanted to do and how, detailing the design of all the experiments, what we were going to deliver and when, etc. Originally there were 28 proposals which were whittled down to eight, and all these went for peer-review to the BBSRC (Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council). Ours was chosen as the most sound proposal. Within the BBSRC there were a few Royal Society Fellows who had a look at our proposal and passed it in their peer-review. Nobody gives £1.6 million for a research proposal only on the basis of the opinion of a few scientists within the Scientific Advisory Unit (SAU) advising SOAEFD." GM FOOD SAFETY: Scientific and Institutional Issues, Science as Culture, Volume 11 Number 1 March 2002 [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Errors and omissions j pickett - 1st post - 16 Jan 2003 15:38

I write to correct an inaccuracy in Claire Robinson's statement. I was requested by The Lancet to review the paper submitted by Dr Pusztai in 1999 and I provided my written comments to the editor in the usual way. Despite my recommendation, the journal chose to publish the paper. On learning this, I decided that the interests of science would be best served if I made public my reasons (along with that of other colleagues) for believing Dr Pusztai's conclusions were not substantiated by the data. By its very nature, science will always breed controversy and my only interest in this matter continues to be a wish that what is presented to the public is based on sound scientific inference. [reply]    [Alert A Moderator]
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re: Prof Pickett's correction Jonathan Matthews - 8th post - 18 Jan 2003 14:44

It is not clear what inaccuracy Prof Pickett believes he is correcting. Claire Robinson says that he broke with the norms of peer review by publicly attacking a scientific paper, before it had even been published, that the Lancet had asked him to review IN CONFIDENCE. Prof Pickett confirms all of these facts.

Prof Pickett went to a national newspaper. It reported his concerns under the headline, "Scientists revolt at publication of flawed GM study", and the article went on to state that Pusztai's study had "failed the ultimate test of scientific credibility", ie peer review.

But it hadn't. Out of the 6 reviewers only Prof Pickett opposed publication and although one other reviewer (widely reported to be Prof Anthony Trewavas, a well-known and highly extreme GM proponent) thought the paper should only be published in the public interest, the other 4 reviewers had all been sufficiently satisfied at the end of the peer review process to recommend publication.

Unanimity among peer reviewers is, of course, neither a prerequisite for publication of a scientific paper nor by any means a norm but the newspaper gave the impression that Dr Pusztai's study was so obviously flawed that the Lancet was only publishing it out of perversity in the teeth of its own reviewers and their concerns. The newspaper's source was Prof Pickett.

In the newspaper article Prof Pickett says he was acting in the interests of truth and science. In point of fact he seems to have misled the paper which in turn misled the public.
 


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