Trust in Science: Examples from the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2005

2005 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine
the Director of the Marshall Centre
the Clinical Professor at the University of  Western Australia


In 2005 I won a Nobel Prize in Medicine because I discovered the stomach bacteria Helicobacter, which is a common cause of stomach ulcers and cancer in China. As part of the discovery process I developed new treatments and diagnostic tests which were approved by the US FDA and USA Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For these new technologies, I was required to collect data about the safety and benefit of the new product, and then present it to the regulators for an impartial review. In a similar way, the safe GMO based drugs we use today have been impartially evaluated in many countries to show that GMO pharmaceutical products, and now foods, are ready to create the next scientific revolution of the 21st century. In the case of Helicobacter, some new products based on GMO technology, might be developed to make vaccines or even drugs.

My role is to introduce some of the very safe and important products which have been used by millions of people for more than nearly 40 years. You might think this means genetically modified plants and foods. However, the first successful products were in the manufacture of hormone drugs. I can give some personal experience here.

At the time the GMO concept developed (1972-5), a major problem in the treatment of diabetes was the presence of antibodies against insulin. Insulin had to be extracted from the pancreas of cows, called “bovine insulin”. Because this was not a human protein people developed immunity to it and the effectiveness decreased as the months and years went by. Autoimmune type disorders could develop. The answer was to switch to another type of insulin, probably pork insulin. But the same problem could develop and what animal could be used next? I was just so delighted in 1978 to hear that DNA technology could change bacteria so that they could manufacture human proteins.

Today, millions of diabetics take human insulin produced by GMO bacteria. Nowadays we don’t care what bacteria, or yeasts, or cells are making the hormone because the product is the exact copy of real human insulin.

The lesson here is that the scientific process can be used to imagine, and then create, new products. In addition, the safety of these products can be predicted using the same process. Not everything can be predicted 100% so the regulatory framework must be firm and evidence based. In this way, new technologies can be assessed by the central authorities and then released when an appropriate safety margin exists.

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