Best thing since sliced bread fails

December 12, 2003

It might have been the best thing since sliced bread - a loaf.

The concept that Michael Emes and colleagues at Manchester University proposed - genetically modifying wheat to alter its starch quality - soon grabbed the attention of industry.

Here was an approach that had the potential to produce innovations such as a loaf that stayed fresher longer, naturally possessing an enhanced shelf life, as well as new biodegradable plastics and material for paper-making.

The scientists needed long-term funding and a UK biotech company wanted superior products. The match seemed a good one.

But Professor Emes, who is now at Guelph University in Canada, saw his project beset by delays and then, after three years, the plug was pulled.

"This was very disappointing. It is a risk that you take," he said.

The scientists had made the first approach to a food producer. The deal drawn up by the university's technology transfer unit, Manchester Innovations, was sound, but there was a two-year delay in sealing the deal because key decision-makers at the company changed.

The agreement was for a long-term relationship through which the scientists would work on improving the yield and quality of starch in wheat. Then the company pulled out of the research.

Professor Emes said: "I don't doubt that the original intent to build something long term was there, but other factors seemed to have come into play. One of these, I am fairly sure, was the perceived public reaction to GM crops in Europe at the time. We thought we had something that was watertight but, in the end, if a company decides not to continue, a university is not in a position to pursue any kind of redress in a serious way."

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