William S. Smith: Biotech for the few and for the many

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BOSTON — The New England life sciences industry has produced an explosion of therapies for small patient populations with rare diseases. Last year, fully half of newly approved drugs were for these smaller populations.

While emerging biotech therapies provide hope for small clusters of patients with rare diseases, when deployed to the agricultural sector, biotech advances promise nourishment for tens of millions who may otherwise face food shortages that are increasingly exacerbated by drought and pestilence. When it comes to agriculture, biotech not only provides hope that "the many" might avoid food scarcity but also represents a promising opportunity for the New England economy.

The problem of future food supplies is a real one. After a decade of decline, the number of undernourished people has risen to 821 million as of last year. Millions are leaving farms and crowding into cities where the food chain cannot keep up. The planet is adding 80 million people every year while arable land is shrinking.

Without biotech breakthroughs to improve the yield of crops and protect them from disease, drought and pests, our ability to feed a growing population is uncertain. When it comes to solutions to the food supply problem, even the United Nations has recognized that: "biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population."

While Massachusetts is always on the forefront of human biotech science, it is poised to have a disproportionate role in agricultural science breakthroughs that will help feed the world because of the expertise found here in gene editing techniques. The most agricultural science advances most likely to boost crop yields will come from more precise gene editing technologies. As the Scientific American recently wrote of gene editing: "It's difficult to overstate the importance of this new revolution in plant breeding."

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INCREASED COMFORT

Gene editing for plants is not only amazing science but it will also likely bring greater consumer acceptance than previous attempts to genetically modify plants. New plant breeds based upon recent advances in gene editing should not create the discomfort among consumers brought on by genetically modified foods (GMOs). While GMO foods have a good safety record, some have nonetheless been uncomfortable with the fact that such genetic modifications involve bringing foreign genetic material into the plant. At the time GMO foods were invented, the technology simply did not exist to modify the plant's own genetic material. But recent advances in gene editing will ensure that plants are modified using solely their own genetic material, producing not only highly natural plants, but stronger ones with greater yields. Gene editing of plants is essentially an accelerated form of plant breeding, a process farmers have been using for thousands of years.

Because the Commonwealth's companies and academic organizations are exploring some of the most promising gene editing technologies, Massachusetts-born ideas will likely be driving the food revolution. Last year, for example, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, licensed its promising CRISPR gene editing technology to agricultural giant Monsanto (soon to be Bayer Crop Science). Even small fruit and vegetable farmers in Massachusetts will benefit if they can breed heartier crops less susceptible to rot and pestilence.

As with any new technology, there will be potential dangers to avoid. No one, for example, should want to create a new genetically modified tobacco plant that is more addictive for humans. Yet the upside of this food revolution could be staggering, with dramatic advances for farmers in developing countries who will be capable of growing robust and resilient crops for local populations. Massachusetts should take pride in the potentially revolutionary benefits of this hometown science.

William S. Smith, PhD, is Visiting Fellow in Life Sciences at the Pioneer Institute.


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