Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

My best – and wronged – new heroes

Three Health Canada scientists blew the whistle, then got canned



Since my Grade 5 science teacher described how Copernicus fought his entire life to convince people that the sun was the centre of the solar system but, for the most part, failed — something so inconceivable and wrong to a classroom of wide-eyed nine-year-olds who couldn't imagine the sun in any other location — clear-minded scientists have been my heroes.

Whether they're at the lectern defending evolution against rabid creationists or providing irrefutable evidence of climate change, the work of scientists informs the neural system of our collective modern thinking.

Now I have three new brilliant heroes who just happen to be scientists, scientists who were hired to protect the health of Canadians and then fired for doing so.

Dr. Shiv Chopra, Dr. Margaret Haydon and Dr. Gérard Lambert were honoured last week with the first annual Integrity Award from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, an organization created in the early 1980s out of concern for the safety of Latin American journalists during that authoritarian era.

In the late 1990s, the CJFE broadened its mandate to champion free expression worldwide. And doctors Chopra, Haydon and Lambert fit perfectly into that template.

The story goes back to the late 1980s, when the three were working for Health Canada, and has become lodged in the more infamous side of our Canadian mythology as the first case of whistleblowing in the Canadian public service and, more importantly, how we, as a society, treat such injustices.

It all started with the scientists' concerns over bovine growth hormone, an innocent enough hormone produced by a cow's pituitary gland to regulate metabolic processes, including the stimulation of milk production so cows can feed their calves. It's also produced by calves to stimulate their growth as they develop into mature animals. In fact, growth hormone is produced by the pituitary glands of all animals, including us, with the levels of production increasing and decreasing as animals need it.

But in the 1930s, scientists discovered that a synthetic bovine growth hormone could be made using recombinant DNA technology to create a synthetic or artificial bovine growth hormone known as recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH for short (also called bovine somatotropin or artificial growth hormone).

In the 1980s, rBGH was manufactured by Monsanto under the brand name of Posilac, the rights to which have since been sold to a branch of Eli Lily, ironically called Elanco Animal Health.

To dig deeper into the gritty details, and possibly gross you out, according to Wikipedia, rBGH is produced through genetically engineered E. coli bacteria. A gene that codes for the sequence of amino acids that make up BST is inserted into the DNA of the E. coli bacterium. The bacteria are separated from the rBGH, which is purified to produce an injectable hormone.