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ProdiGene's mistake affects emerging biopharm industry

(Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Bill Hord, Omaha World-Herald, via Agnet: LINCOLN, Neb.--Companies in an industry dubbed "biopharming" are, according to this story, chasing a dream that someday crops will replace multimillion-dollar buildings as the factories where many drugs are made, but last fall, errors by a biotech company in College Station, Texas, called ProdiGene Inc., led to the destruction of crops in Nebraska and Iowa and called into question the concept of growing drugs in food crops. The mistakes, which resulted in fines for ProdiGene, seemed to give validity to years of warnings from environmental groups and more recent concerns from big food companies.

Today, the biopharming industry is, the story explains, relatively small. At least 16 companies are known to be testing drugs in plants. Only four of those are publicly traded companies -- Dow Chemical Co., Large Scale Biology Corp., Monsanto Protein Technologies Inc. and Syngenta.

The story goes on to say that after paying the USDA fine for violating government growing restrictions and nearly $3 million to clean up crop contamination, ProdiGene continues to do business in a world now more suspicious of its open-field experiments.

ProdiGene President Tony Laos was quoted as saying, "It (the contamination) never should have happened. Hopefully, people can look beyond the mistakes that were made. We have those corrected."

Laos was further cited as saying ProdiGene is financially stable but declined to discuss the sources of funding or reveal who owns the company, except to say he is a small stockholder, adding "We have lived off of venture capital and angel (private individual) financing."

The story says that companies around the world involved in the research have had to defend their practices.

They were grateful that ProdiGene's wayward tests did not get into food. Dow Chemical Co. announced it will seek isolated locations outside of the Corn Belt for testing pharmaceutical corn, hopefully avoiding cross-pollination and contamination. Different agencies of the U.S. government -- the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency -- are reviewing their guidelines for open-field testing of pharmaceutical crops. The ProdiGene contamination brought renewed focus to the governmental review that was already under way. Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was quoted as saying, "Our view is that the regulatory system needs to be greatly improved to safeguard health and the environment."