Researchers at Wuhan University, National Research Council of Canada and the Center for Functional Genomics at the University at Albany have been working together to create GMO rice that contains human blood protein chemically identical to human serum albumin. This protein is normally obtained by extracting it from blood donors. It is then used to treat patients with burns and liver disease, but blood donors can now be bypassed with a GMO synthetic version.

Yang and his colleagues inserted the gene encoding HSA into their rice plants in such a way that the gene was activated during seed production, and the resulting protein was stored in the rice grain along with nutrients normally used to help nurture a germinating embryo. The final product was a crop of rice seeds in which HSA made up more than 10% of the seeds’ total soluble protein — one of the best yields of recombinant protein from plants to date.

It was relatively simple for Yang to extract HSA from the grains. Because the rice genome was completed in 2005, he was able to use this information to separate the human protein from those of rice.

The rice-derived protein was shown to be functionally equivalent to the version found in human blood plasma. Not only were the two chemically and physically identical, but they were also similar when tested for medical efficacy and immune reactivity. In rats with liver disease, both types of HSA proved equally effective in relieving symptoms associated with cirrhosis. And rats that were given rice-derived HSA showed no stronger immune reaction than animals that had been given the plasma-derived version.

Yang aims to move into human testing next. He has submitted his first clinical-trial application to the US Food and Drug Administration, and hopes to begin testing the rice-derived HSA in humans within the next two years.

This new crop, however, is not without its own concerns.

Large-scale planting of genetically modified rice fields that could produce enough seed for mass production of the protein also raises environmental and food supply contamination concerns, since rice is a major world food staple.

However, the study authors noted that rice is a largely self-pollinating crop, pointing to previous studies that showed “a very low frequency (0.04-0.80%) of pollen-mediated gene flow between genetically modified (GM) rice and adjacent non-GM plants.”

Since we haven’t been able to keep GMO crops from accidentally cross-pollinating with non-GMO crops, more studies need to be done before the rice crop ever goes into production.

More research is needed to evaluate the safety of the rice-derived protein in animals and humans before it can be considered for the market.

Considering the fact that anything that has been genetically modified does not have to be labeled in the United States, do we really want our rice to contain a human blood protein, or any other drug, vitamin, or whatever else they can put in it on the market without the general knowledge of the public? It doesn’t matter how small an amount the researchers say it is. Once it’s placed into our food chain, it’s there for good so that someone else can make money while the general population becomes a giant petri dish of experiments.