Mera wants to produce genetically modified strains on the Big Island
By Rod Thompson
Honolulu Star Bulletin
October 14, 2005
A Kona judge has ruled that the state Board of Agriculture must prepare an environmental assessment before Mera Pharmaceuticals Inc. can start large-scale production of genetically modified algae at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Strance ruled that the law requires the state to do the environmental study because Mera operates on state land at the Big Island energy laboratory.
The ruling had been sought by Earthjustice on behalf of four citizens’ groups.
“This project is the first of its kind for Hawaii,” Earthjustice said in a motion that became the basis for Strance’s ruling.
“At best, it raises serious controversy and concerns; at worst, it could have disastrous impacts on the environment and human health.”
The algae, known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, would be grown by Mera for its partner company, Rincon Pharmaceuticals of California.
Eight strains of the algae have been developed, each modified to produce drugs that could be beneficial to people, such as one that fights the herpes simplex virus, another that limits tumor growth, another specifically aimed at cancer cells and one that stimulates growth of nerve tissue.
However, the actual effects on people have not been studied, the Earthjustice document said.
University of Texas at Austin botany professor R. Malcolm Brown Jr. submitted a statement with the Earthjustice filings saying some Chlamydomonas could dry out, blow into the Kona environment and start growing again in the wild.
In June, the Board of Agriculture approved Mera’s plan to grow the algae at the Kona energy laboratory.
Following Strance’s ruling, Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake said the board of directors of the energy laboratory must also approve the project.
It’s not clear who would pay for the environmental study. Mera wasn’t a party to the legal proceedings, and a spokesman for Mera couldn’t be reached for comment.
The state Department of Agriculture must meet with the deputy attorney general assigned to the case before deciding on further action, department spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi said.