Deaths and Cripplings from Genetically Engineered L-tryptophan

Deaths and Cripplings from Genetically Engineered L-tryptophan

By Professor Philip J. Regal, PhD, University of Minnesota

Reprinted with permission of author.

From Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe? A Scientist’s Quest for Biosafety, Draft Manuscript, May 13, 1999. Additions in brackets September 12, 1999.

It became clear in 1989 that 37 people had died and 1500 had become crippled, perhaps permanently, after eating a commercially marketed amino acid, L-tryptophan, that had been manufactured with genetically engineered bacteria by the Showa Denko company.

Victims did not simply drop over dead after taking one dose, which would have made the cause of their illness easy to trace, but the effects were a slow deterioration of their minds and bodies after eating the amino acid on several occasions. So the cause of the new epidemic was inherently difficult to trace to its source.

Fortunately, the epidemic took place near the famed diagnostic Mayo clinic and other excellent medical facilities in Minnesota and the source was quickly traced after only some 37 deaths and 1500 cripplings, and was taken off the market.

Scientists from Third World countries and other less fortunate parts of the U.S. have rightly pointed out that such an epidemic could go on for years among their people without being properly understood, the source of the problem identified, and the food withdrawn. Something like this could be happening at this moment without getting attention.

Showa Denko destroyed the evidence that could have been used to determine the scientific cause of the problem. They destroyed the genetically engineered bacterial stocks, along with any potentially surviving specks that investigators might have recovered from the walls or the equiptment in their facilities. As a result of this, we scientists may never be able to learn exactly what happened.

This accident appeared superficially to be the sort of thing about which others and myself had been warning. It appeared superficially that when the biosynthesis of tryptophan had been artificially sped up, molecules would often stick together in unusual ways and unusual compounds would be produced, in this case a suspicious previously unknown dimer of L-tryptophan.

But due to the destruction of evidence (which would be a crime in countries such as the U.S.), the answer may never be known as a solid fact. [One good source for information on the L-tryptophan incident is the House of Representative Hearings (House of Representatives 1991). There are hundreds of more recent sources on the World Wide Web and Medline. See my web page for some links. Trace literature references through links in victims' website above, links in my main biosafety web page, and/or this essay  'Are Genetically Engineered Foods ....' See also correspondence published in the October 30, 1997 New England Journal of Medicine detailing researchers' concerns that they were being pressured to come up with biased findings on health matters and the L-tryptophan incident was specifically discussed in the multiple replies. According to the Consumer Law Page and personal contacts, Showa Denko settled out of court with various survivors who made claims, on the condition that terms of settlement remain secret. Word of mouth and indirectly obtained information (corporate budget) suggest that the settlements and fees have totaled about two billion dollars.]

Whatever had actually happened at the molecular level and in the victims' bodies, the incident taught many important lessons about the inability of the biotech community (those in and out of government) to regulate themselves and to be honest with other scientists and the public.

The incident demonstrated clearly (as if this were necessary) that genetically engineered foods were not being regulated and could enter the food supply without oversight, contrary to what I had been promised and assured for more than 4 years. [Lawers and other PR people have tried to shift the discussion to whether or not a food supplement is a food, or a drug that should have been tested. But the commercially sold L-tryptophan was in any event something known to be ingested by many Americans.]

Whatever the technical cause of the problem, it is morally indefensible that, after scientists such as myself had been warning the biotech community for years about health risks, a genetically engineered consumable was allowed on the market without testing and approval.

Even though the material evidence had been destroyed, spokespersons for the biotech community began claiming that they knew what happened; when this was in fact impossible for anyone to know. They went around claiming that a mysterious ‘contaminant' had caused the problem. They went around claiming that reductions in charcoal filtration had somehow mysteriously produced the unusual molecules. It was clear that when faced with a serious ethical and scientific problem they would put considerable effort into image damage control and the construction of legalistic defensive arguments. There have even been claims made by scientists that efforts were made to intimidate those whose research pointed to a link between the tragedy and genetic engineering. [(e.g. p.1316 in a multiple author discussion, "Intimidation of Researchers by Special-Interest Groups" in the 30 October 1997 New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 337)]

I have never yet heard anyone in the biotech community angrily fault Showa Denko for destroying evidence. I have not found any heated criticism of Showa Denko or regulatory agencies by biotech boosters in print. I have only heard and read heated attempts to defend genetic engineering, and vigorous distortions of the facts of the case. This was not a scientific or a humane response to the tragedy, it was a political and emotional response that says something about a prevailing state of mind in the biotech community.

I never met or heard of anyone in the biotech community who acknowledged even the possibility that if the biotech party line had not insisted that genetic engineering was safe and so oversight was not needed that the deadly batches of L-tryptophan might never have ended up on the market. Whatever the precise cause of the epidemic at the molecular level, dozens of innocent consumers might not have been killed and 1500 crippled people might be leading active happy lives today if Showa Denko had been more careful. I have seen only denial that the routine denials that genetic engineering might entail some risks could have possibly played any part in the tragedy by contributing to Showa Denko's carelessness. I have certainly seen no convincing remorse in the biotech community for the dead and crippled.

University scientists who had not studied the documentation itself began parroting the arguments that the public relations persons for the industry had developed. As though any proof was necessary, it became crystal clear that ideas within the community of molecular biologists were largely being generated and spread from the top down. This was clear because opinions that were being stated with authority were not being based on studies of the actual facts by the individual scientists who were speaking as ‘scientific' authorities, but only on what was being said by those who were in positions of power. It was clear that gossip had become as good as scientific evidence in the profession, even on matters where human lives could be at stake.

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