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A new weapon against mad cow disease?

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert shares information from a report about genetically modified cattle and how it could impact the beef you eat.
/ Source: TODAY

The Washington Post reports that scientists believe they have come up with a way of using genetic engineering to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) commonly known as mad cow disease. According to the story, a company called Hematech has developed a process that will actually produce cattle that are biologically incapable of developing BSE because they lack prions, a protein that facilitates the mad cow infection. The Post writes that Hematech scientists “cultivated a colony of cattle cells in a laboratory dish. Then they used a genetic engineering method to 'knock out' just one gene inside each cell — the gene that directs the production of prion proteins. Finally, using cloning techniques, the team grew a dozen calves, each from one of those altered cells. Because the starter cell from which each animal was grown lacked the prion gene, so did all the daughter cells that ultimately constituted the animals' bodies. Today, as far as scientists can tell, those 12 cattle are wholly lacking in prions.” Numerous questions remain to be answered. It remains possible that as the cattle age, they could still develop BSE. It also is unknown whether the lack of prions will cause other medical problems for the cows. And, further studies need to be conducted to see what happens when BSE-infected prions are injected into a prion-free cow. The research looks promising as scientists look for ways to prevent the spread of mad cow and its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

There is no doubt that as we move further into the world of biotech that diseases of all kinds will be able to be controlled and genes manipulated — and that will make for a better and healthier life. But once again we have to state the obvious, products such as this GMO (genetically modified organism) beef must be labeled as such to allow shoppers to make informed choices.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .