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Commercial Pharming: The Widespread Applications of Rice in Medicine

This past summer I had the honor of attending the Student Science Training Program (SSTP) at the University of Florida. I was assigned to a plant pathology lab whose primary focus was to properly assess the conditions and variations of Oryza sativa, more commonly known as rice. Under the guidance of Dr. Wen-Yuan Song, I continued my exploration of the qualities of rice and soon after became infatuated by the allure of the widespread applications of rice, which range from medications to cosmetics. 

The importance of rice has been recognized for many centuries – in India, it was once known as ‘dhanya,’ meaning, ‘the sustainer of the human race.’

Laboratory studies have shown that rice products may have anti-cancer properties and the potential to treat other conditions such as diabetes, kidney stones, and heart disease.

The medicinal properties of rice vary depending on the types used. Many of the beneficial compounds present in brown rice are absent from highly-refined white rice. Rice bran can contain up to about 25% fiber, which is known to assist the absorption of fats in the gut. It also decreases levels of cholesterol in the blood, aids digestion, and can be used as a mild laxative. The oil from rice bran contains vitamin E and minerals. The vitamin E group of compounds in rice have antioxidant properties, and these compounds could explain some of the traditional medicinal uses of rice, particularly to treat cancer.

Although rice and other crops are extremely viable sources for medical treatments, their use in modern medicine is controversial. Companies developing drugs in food crops, such as rice, offer a quicker and cheaper route that produces a protein-rich, stable drug. However, to some campaigners, the growth of outdoor pharmaceuticals should be banned. A 2005 editorial said, “Some ideas, no matter how good they look on paper, should never be tried in practice. One of these is producing drugs or vaccines in genetically engineered food crops. The risk of these potent chemicals finding their way into the human food chain is just too high.”

Upon reevaluating the implications of engineering a pharmaceutical constructed from rice, it occurred to me that the risks associated with this development are exceedingly high. However, the prevalence of rice throughout the world leads to an increased efficiency in the production of drugs made of rice, and a drug of this caliber is a necessity in third world countries. Although commercial pharming leads to a profound amount of skepticism, the outcome could positively affect thousands of lives worldwide.

Edited by: Kaylynn Crawford and Karen Yung