The Australian agriculture officials responded to reports from a New Zealand lecturer that claimed a genetically modified wheat variety being tested could lead to liver-related problems. Jack Heinemann, professor at the University of Canterbury, working with the Safe Food Foundation in Australia, claimed CSIRO developed a GM wheat that had unintended effects on humans.

Heinemann claimed this GM wheat restrained the production of glycogen, which impacts the liver and could damage it. The key concern was focused on small inhibitory RNA (siRNA) molecules produced by the GM wheat to prevent the production of an enzyme that creates easy to digest starch. Inhibiting the production of this enzyme leads to the wheat carrying more resistant (hard to digest) starch, a desirable trait as diets high in resistant starch have been associated with improved bowel health and a reduction in the risk of colorectal cancer.

However, Heinemann’s claims have been criticized. Many have said Heinemann’s research is flawed.

Associate Professor Peter Dearden, director of Genetics Otago, Biochemistry Department, University of Otago, said, “Professor Heinemann’s criticisms of this GM crop are speculative. They are based on a similarity to the gene being targeted in the wheat having some similarity to a human gene. The technique used in the wheat is to make a small RNA molecule that targets the wheat and causes it to be turned off. The problem is that such small RNA molecules made in plants have been found to cross into humans via the digestive system, and may affect human genes. This effect is, however, sequence specific. So if the human genome has no DNA sequence similar to the small RNA, then nothing can happen.

“In this case small portions of the genes being targeted in the wheat, DO have similarity to human genes. The similarity is in short regions of those genes, not the full length, and are quite weak. The question that needs to be addressed is if the sequences used in the wheat are those that have similarities to the human gene. The intellectual property requirements of CSIRO mean that we do not have access to that information, and neither does Prof. Heinemann.”

Professor Rick Roush, the Dean of the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne, said, “Not only are these claims of potential health risks from the CSIRO starch-modified wheat highly speculative, they have been advanced by three anti-GM campaigners who have deliberately bypassed independent scientific assessment of their claims. Instead, this has been launched such that will become another scientific-sounding scare story in cyberspace, a well-worn path of anti-GM so-called “science” by press release. Contrary to the claims being made, RNA interference technologies are already being considered in risk assessment internationally.

“Having read the claims in detail, I have absolutely no fear in volunteering to serve as a human volunteer to test the CSIRO wheat.”

Even CSIRO questioned Heinemann’s data, saying, “The claims had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal but would be considered by the organization and regulatory bodies along with all other relevant research.”

Although trials of this particular GM wheat have been asked to be suspended, there is some dispute as to whether this variety has been in trials. Confusion was perpetuated when Terry Redman, spokesman for the agriculture ministry, said the trial was not over yet and therefore it was too early to talk about any results. However, another spokesperson has said this variety was not in included in any trials.