Humulin, a genetically engineered insulin developed by Eli Lilly and Company using E. coli bacteria, was the first bioengineered drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Since that 1982 decision, the FDA has approved over 60 “biomedicines,” including blood-clotting factors for hemophiliacs and treatments for heart attack, stroke, cancer, and anemia.
The Promise: Many environmentalists support medical applications of biotech, which have been more tightly regulated than agricultural uses. Biotech insulin can be engineered to more closely match human insulin, an improvement in many ways over that extracted from the pancreases of pigs and cattle. (Some people develop antibodies to porcine and bovine insulin, rendering the treatment ineffective.) Transgenic technologies have also reduced the cost of vaccine production and helped develop blood-clotting factors (the proteins that initiate and regulate clotting) that are safer than factors from donors.
The Peril: Despite the potential advantages, some biotech drugs may cause unforeseen side-effects. In April 2000, a group of patients filed a class-action lawsuit against Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, a Danish company, claiming that genetically engineered insulin causes life-threatening diabetic complications.
To Learn More: The long-running Canadian consumer affairs program Marketplace covered the controversy on a February 13, 2001, segment.