Pharma firm "hampered by anti-GMO activities" (7/9/2005)

Meristem - the company complaining below about being victimized by "the anti-GMO spirit" - was established by French seed giant Limagrain which in 1994 took over the seed production assets of the French agrochemical giant Rhone-Poulenc. The two companies also developed common research programmes for developing GM crops within a joint venture.

According to a report on Limagrain's innovation strategy, Limagrain has "made the strategic decision to concentrate on biotechnology and agro-industrial activities, and to dedicate *all* its resources towards this goal' (emphasis added). The report also notes, that biotech "is one of the central themes for the company... resources, such as the company's capacity for research and development, are [therefore] earmarked for biotechnology." In other words, Limagrain has gone and bet its shirt on biotech but as the report notes a key challenge to such a strategy is "the acceptability of GMOs".

Just what a desperate fix Limagrain-Meristem has got itself into was made all too clear last summer when the press reported "the surprise emergence in France of a group of radical rural campaigners claiming to be in favour of open-field [GM] experiments". These supposedly "radical rural campaigners', who came to blows with French protesters seeking to clear a field of GM crops, turned out to be lead by Pierre Pagesse - the boss of Limagrain!

Meristem sees its development hampered by anti-GMO activities
September 5, 2005
By Manuel Armand
Translated by Katharina Schoebi, Checkbiotech

Meristem, the French leader of drug development with transgenic plants, has seen its progression hampered by the anti-GMO spirit. Since the beginning of summer, Meristem has been victimized by the destruction of 20 hectares of genetically engineered maize.

On the nights of July 18 and 19 of this year, 5,000m were damaged close to Issoire, France. Responsibility was claimed by a group of "voluntary mowers", which was then followed by two further acts of vandalism. Two lots of 3000m were destroyed during the night on August 1, and a third field of 3000m was destroyed on August 2.

"Does it still make sense to develop a biotechnology project in France?" asked Jean-Paul Rohmer, president of Meristem's Executive Board. "If we do not have the possibility of growing transgenic plants in conditions of normal security, our existence will be threatened."

Although the question is not the order of the day, Rohmer does not rule out the possibility of relocation outside of France. "If it would be banned and impossible to work here, we would be on the lookout for somewhere else", he confirmed.

The French government denounced this "act of vandalism" which took place in a similar way to the vandalism which was previously committed in Tarn, and has appealed to the courts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Established in 1997 by the cooperative agricultural Limagrain, Meristem developed a pipeline of drugs designed to cure digestion problems associated with mucoviscidosis. Located in Clermont-Ferrand, the company hopes to start phase 3 clinical trials at the end of 2006.

Random dimension

The trials (conducted in more than one hundred patients) need a great quantity of gastric lipase, a protein derived from Meristem's transgenic maize.

"The authorisation to bring the drug to the market could occur in 2008," estimates Rohmer. "This market represents a hundred million euros per year. We would have to deliver the protein to a pharmaceutical partner, who would then produce the drug." One thousand hectares of genetically modified maize would be necessary for the production of the protein.

From this point of view, Meristem has been making preparations for the establishment of a factory for lipase extraction in the north of Clermont-Ferrand. "This investment could add new jobs," explains Rohmer. "Nevertheless, the act of the 'voluntary mowers' leaves an uncertainty. All our efforts will be put in jeopardy, if we are not able to grow the corn close to here."

Also another difficulty could emerge. During clinical development Meristem is employing 45 people - ten of them with a doctorate degree - but has not yet recorded any sales.

"Since we started, we had an initial capital of 45 million euros and 7 million is left," Mr Rohmer remarks. The shareholders are Banexi (BNP Paribas) and Limagrain. "To conduct this project, new funds are definitely necessary." When asked if the "mowers" are able to scare investors, Rohmer admitted, "The destructions give our activity an added dimension of risk".

The French Biotech association regrets this climate of suspicion, too. "The distance between the United States and Europe in biotechnology continues to grow," notes Philippe Pouletty, the president of the association. "In 2004, European investments in biotechnology made up only 17 percent. Although this is not the main factor for our current problems, the political context significantly contributes to it."

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