Chicken eggs and a anti-cancer drug
Scientists have used eggs from genetically modified chickens to produce a substance used to fight cancer – which they hope will massively cut the cost of treatment.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh inserted a human gene for the production of two disease-fighting proteins into the birds’ DNA. The animals then began laying eggs containing a significant amount of the proteins, which are used in humans to treat some cancers and arthritis.
Researcher Lissa Herron from Roslin Technologies, the commercial arm of the university’s Roslin Institute for animal science research, told the BBC the process should be much cheaper than current methods of producing drugs containing the proteins.
Getting proteins from hens
The human body naturally produces the proteins, called IFNalpha2a and macrophage-CSF, but drugs containing these and other proteins are particularly expensive to manufacture and gain approval for.
Several protein-based drugs made using genetically modified animals are already in use, and genetically modified sheep, goats and cows have been used to produce treatments in their milk. The first example of this was production of the anti-clotting agent antithrombin in goats’ milk, which was approved in Europe in 2006.
However, large mammals have long pregnancies and few offspring, which can make it difficult to produce large quantities of the proteins; the high fat and protein content of milk makes it difficult to extract them properly; and there is a risk that the protein will damage the animal.
The chickens can lay up to 300 eggs a year, and the scientists say it is likely that this is a commercially viable method of production, especially since commercial methods of manufacture are becoming what they termed ‘prohibitive’.
The development and approval of drugs for humans would be expected to take between 10 and 20 years, but the researchers also hope to use chickens to develop drugs for animal health – for example, drugs which boost the immune systems of farm animals, which farmers might use instead of antibiotics, thereby hopefully reducing the problem of antibiotic resistance, and treatments for pets.
An ethically sound answer?
There are, of course, serious ethical and scientific concerns over genetic engineering, particularly the introduction of DNA from one species into the cells of another, the long-term effects of which on the ecosystem are unknown.
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