New research in the UK has produced genetically modified chickens that lay eggs that contain proteins that are essential to creating cutting-edge cancer drugs. The Roslin Institute, which garnered fame in 1997 for creating Dolly, the first cloned sheep, says it has produced five generations of birds that can produce useful levels of life-saving proteins in egg whites. Each egg contains enough proteins to medicate a handful of patients for a full year.
The process of using domesticated animals to produce expensive drugs has come to be known as “pharming,” and this new research opens a new chapter in the procedures.
To harvest drugs from eggs, Dr Sang’s team worked with Oxford Biomedica, a pharmaceutical company that specialises in gene therapy.
They used a virus called equine infectious anaemia lentivirus, which infects horses, to insert the human genes into chicken embryos in newly laid eggs, by creating a chimera – a blend of GM and normal cells.
Crucially, some of the sperm cells in the resulting chimeric cockerels carried the new gene for the human protein, and passed on the implanted gene to their daughters.
These hens also contain the human gene in every cell of their bodies. The team controls precisely where the gene is used for protein production in the birds, to ensure that the potent biotech drugs do not affect the birds themselves.
Harry Griffin, head of the Roslin Institute, told the BBC this:
“One of the characteristics of lots of medical treatments these days is that they’re very expensive. The idea of producing the proteins involved in treatments in flocks of laying hens means they can produce in bulk, they can produce cheaply and indeed the raw material for this production system is quite literally chicken feed.”
Hopefully, these new techniques will continue to drive down the costs of these drug, and as “pharming” is perfected, a wide variety of animals can be used to produce medicine that will save lives.