In Coming Harvests, Farm-aceutical Corn

corn scientist genetically modified
It's in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, an island of corn in an ocean of soybeans. It was planted by design in splendid isolation, because the real product being grown on this plot isn't corn, but as CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, it's a drug called Aprotinin.

Inside ears of corn are the seeds of a brand new growth industry. This year the USDA has issued 32 field permits for the growing of drugs and drug compounds in barley, rice, tobacco and corn.

And the list of what is being grown is revolutionary: plant-based insulin and vaccines for hepatitis B, cholera and diarrhea. There have even been greenhouse attempts to grow spermicide.

Next year, the biotech firm Epicyte will be the first to start human clinical tests on a gel to treat herpes. That drug too, is being grown in corn.

"In our case were looking at preventing the herpes simplex virus infections," says Epicyte founder and president Mich Hein. "Instead of spending several hundred million dollars and waiting five years to build a factory you can actually increase the amount of antibody you make by growing more corn."

Tony Laos, the CEO of Prodigene, a biotech company in business to grow drugs in crops, believes the process will eventually reduce the retail cost of drugs.

So that's the promise. Here's the problem. How will they keep the herpes treatment, or any other drug, out of corn flakes.

The biotech companies say that won't happen.

Laos says there are strict government rules for the isolation of the engineered corn. Drug plots must be a minimum of a quarter mile away from other corn and the harvest must be gathered and stored in virtual quarantine.

Laos says he's sure drugs won't contaminate the non-pharmaceutical corn, "because I'm following procedures that makes it impossible for that to happen."

But that's what the industry also said about StarLink corn, a biotech variety not approved for food, the day before they found StarLink in taco shells. It had been mixed, by mistake, in the field.

Greg Jaffe, who tracks biotech food for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praises the new planting rules but warns the government has no plans to test conventional corn for another biotech accident.

"They should be checking on those farms to make sure that the non-pharmaceutical corn in fact doesn't have contamination in it," says Jaffe.

Government regulators tell CBS News this time they know what they are doing, and they will have to prove that soon. In the coming harvest, there's a new crop of experimental medicine embedded in the amber waves of grain.

E-mail your questions and comments to Wyatt Andrews.