Peter Lachmann

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Sir Peter Lachmann is professor of immunology at the University of Cambridge, and a former vice president and biological secretary of the Royal Society, as well as a former president of the UK's Academy of Medical Sciences.

Lachmann chaired the Royal Society expert group which produced the Society's first report on GM crops in 1998. Entitled 'Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use', it broadly concluded that the use of GM plants had the potential to offer benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health.

Peter Lachmann is a member of the Sense About Science working party on peer review, and is also on the Advisory Council of Sense About Science. He is also an advisor to the Genetic Interest Group, to which SmithKline Beecham have also been controversially linked.

Lachmann has also been

a scientific advisor to SmithKline Beecham;
a former non-executive director and current chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Adprotech plc, a biotech company which Lachmann helped spin out from SmithKline Beecham;
a consultant to Geron Biomed, which markets the cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep.

Lachmann was one of the Fellows of the Royal Society who were key players in the attacks on Dr Arpad Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, Lachmann was among the nineteen Fellows of the Royal Society who condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter published in the national press.[1]

Lachmann's most notorious intervention in the GM debate occurred in 1999 in the run up to the Lancet's publication of Dr Arpad Pusztai's paper showing adverse effects on rats fed on GM potatoes. The Lancet's editor, Richard Horton, received a phone call from someone The Guardian newspaper identified as Lachmann. Lachmann was said to have been highly aggressive. He is said to have called Horton 'immoral' for publishing something that he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says his caller told him that if he published Pusztai's paper, this would 'have implications for his personal position' as editor. News of the threat against Horton, which Lachmann denied, made the front-page of The Guardian in November 1999.

A few months earlier Lachmann had responded in print to Horton's criticism of the Royal Society's review of Pusztai's then unpublished research. Horton had declared it 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.' In a letter to The Lancet, Lachmann attacked both The Lancet and the British Medical Association (BMA) for 'aligning' themselves over GM crops 'with the tabloid press in opposition to the Royal Society and Nuffield Council on BioEthics'. His letter concluded with an expression of concern about the potentially serious damage that 'this campaign of vilification does to the science base and the prosperity of the UK'.

Following publication of Arpad Pusztai and his co-researcher Stanley Ewen's paper in the Lancet, Lachmann wrote another letter to the journal. He called the paper 'unacceptable'. Pusztai and Ewen responded that if the research needed to be repeated, as Lachmann had said, then why hadn't that happened? 'If Lachmann represents the view of the Academy of Medical Sciences on GM-food safety, he should use his influence to make funds available foir the continuation of this work in the UK.' Prof Ewen, who was based at the University of Aberdeen, says he received a warning after the letter was published. 'Because we attacked him, it was bad for any university. I was told not to be so provocative.' Eventually, Prof Ewen felt he had no option but to retire from his academic post.

Lachmann had been among the founding Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences as well as the Academy's inaugural president - a post which he took up immediately on completing his term as biological secretary at the Royal Society.

The Academy was established in 1998 to have the 'authority to speak out on the multitude of public policy issues that involve the biomedical disciplines', as well as to provide 'expert advice to Government and policy makers'. 'Regulation of Biotechnology' is one of the key areas in which it has provided advice.

Lachmann was also able to use his presidency of the Academy as another platform for attacks on The Lancet. In an article in the Academy's first Fellowship Newsletter, Lachmann wrote that the medical sciences were beset by 'controversial issues - including also the problems of genetically modified food discussed at our Edinburgh regional meeting.' The Academy, Lachmann said, needed to defend 'rational science in the face of wild scare stories. The Academy has found itself much embroiled in this now first year and there's no sign that our involvement is likely to diminish.' The Academy had also set up a working group on how to deal with the media. 'This is a matter of major importance for a new, and as yet little known body, and the experiences that both our sister academy, the Royal Society and we have had in the last year, not least with The Lancet, highlight the difficulties to be overcome.'

Lachmann also used the Academy as a platform for attacks on the British Medical Association over their cautious stance on GM. In December 2002, for instance, in a letter to The Times he and three co-signatories expressed concern 'that the recent call from the British Medical Association for the Scottish Executive to halt GM field trials should not be taken to reflect wider medical opinion.'

One of the letter's co-signatories was Bridget Ogilvie, who is the Vice Chair of Sense About Science. The letter concluded, 'Scientific and medical developments in areas from gene therapy to immunology will not be possible if trials and applications can be curtailed on the basis of concerns without scientific foundation.'

The letter also criticised the BMA for giving its opinion despite 'no expertise in plant science'. Although Lachman has repeatedly made this criticism, he has failed to explain how on that basis a professor of immunology like himself has given his opinion so freely and so authoritatively on this issue. In an item broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in January 2003, for instance, Lachmann stated, 'Food is food and medicines are medicines and I think that food, whether it's brought about by conventional plant breeding or by the insertion of genes, is really much the same.' From a scientific point of view, it is impossible to make such a generalised statement - differences may arise both intentionaly and unintentionally.

Lachmann's comments were included in reports, run by the BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, which claimed that at the urging of Sense about Science, the British Medical Association had decided to review its cautious policy on GM in its 1999 report on the subject and issue a new report. Lachmann told Ghosh that the BMA's original 1999 report had been based on research which was now 'discredited' - presumably, a reference to Pusztai.

Lachmann was presented as if he were a spokesperson for the BMA rather than a critic. In fact, the biotechnology company Bayer subsequently quoted Lachmann's comments in an official submission to the government's economic review in which they referred to Lachmann as 'the new Director of Science at the BMA'.

The BMA responded on the day of the broadcast with a press release in which Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of BMA Science and Ethics, stated that, 'Today's BBC reports stating why the BMA would be undertaking a future report of GM crops and food is wrong.'The BMA press release also stated, 'The claim that we have been persuaded by the organisation Sense about Science to review our policy is simply wrong.' The BMA said that it's review was, in fact, routine as the original report had been of an interim nature. The BBC subsequently amended its online report in the light of the BMA statement. The amended report clarified who Lachmann was, describing him as a 'vocal proponent' of GM crops.

Lachmann has also been a vocal proponent of human embryo cloning for the purpose of harvesting embryonic stem cells. Ernst Helmreich of the University of Warzburg, responding to a Lachmann piece in the journal Nature, made a point that many would regard as applicable to Lachmann's cavalier attitude to genetically engineered crops, 'What I missed in Professor Lachmann's article... is the acknowledgement that stem cell therapy is fundamentally different from other treatments... Implantation of stem cells will profoundly interfere with the regulatory circuitry of our cells and tissues. It is, therefore, not surprising to someone familiar with cellular regulation, that implantation of stem cells into the brain of Parkinson patients caused side effects that were worse than the disease itself.'
Geron Biomed, for whom Lachmann has been a consultant, has long been a keen supporter of embryo cloning - unsurprisingly, given its involvement in cloning technology, and has made the transition from animal cloning to human embryo stem cell research.

It is interesting to note, given the extremity of Lachmann's concern over the quality of Pusztai's research and Lachmann's aggressive complaints about the Lancet's publication of Pusztai's paper, that the Academy of Medical Sciences drew strong criticism during Lachmann's presidency over the feebleness of its response to the problem of research fraud. The Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope), a body formed by journal editors, described the Academy's plan to leave the problem to employers, as 'toothless' and lacking 'sufficient clout' to make any real difference. The British Medical Journal's editor, Richard Smith, warned further research misconduct was inevitable in such circumstances. 'Questions will then be asked about what the scientific establishment has done to respond to a problem identified more than 20 years ago. The answers, unfortunately, will embarrass us all.'


  1. Laurie Flynn and Michael Sean Gillard, Pro-GM food scientist 'threatened editor', The Guardian, 1 November 1999, accessed 17 Dec 2009