Britney may help fight cancer
The scientists who made history by cloning Dolly the sheep have unveiled their latest creation – a chicken called Britney.
She is the first of four fowl genetically altered so they will be able to provide cancer-fighting agents in their eggs. The experts at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh hope GM chickens will be used in the future to mass-produce cancer drugs.
They plan to be making new drugs to fight skin cancer from chickens like Britney and her friends within a year. Fresh treatments for lung, cervical and breast cancers will follow, they believe.
Many cancer drugs being developed are protein-based but they are complex and difficult to produce in large quantities using traditional manufacturing methods.
By genetically modifying chickens –introducing DNA which makes them produce cancer-fighting proteins – the scientists say the drugs can be manufactured by the ton.
The institute is linking up with the biotechnology company Viragen. The scientists are to introduce the firm’s patented cancer antibodies into their GM chickens so the vital proteins will be produced in the whites of the fowl’s eggs.
Chickens lay an average of 250 eggs a year and are natural protein producers. They are also cheap. So GM hens could turn out to be highly efficient living drugs factories.
Dr Helen Sang, from the Roslin Institute, said yesterday: ‘Avian technology provides a much faster, cheaper and virtually unlimited production process marked by the chicken’s prolific egg laying capacity.’
Any drugs produced using GM chickens would have to undergo lengthy clinical trials before they being made commercially available.
Viragen hope to have trials going within two years.
Although Dr Sang’s team has managed to produce ‘transgenic’ chickens – birds which have had their DNA scientifically altered – the process is inefficient, with only a handful of attempts succeeding.
If the chickens could be cloned, like Dolly the sheep, the success rate could be 100 per cent. The scientists are working towards cloning a chicken.
‘We cannot put a time scale on it,’ said Professor Grahame Bulfield, director of the Roslin Institute. ‘But there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to adapt the technology for chickens.
‘Production of these proteins is still viable using transgenic chickens, but it would be much more efficient with clones.’
The developments at the institute will reignite the ethical debate over the rights and wrongs of so-called ‘pharming’, the use of genetically altered animals to produce drugs.
Dr Andre Menache, president of Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine, said he had ethical concerns about using animals as ‘manufacturing plants’. ‘But my main worry about this is in terms of public health,’ he added.
‘After BSE, we should be very, very careful about using animal products in people. We could be transmitting something unknown. ‘By creating transgenic creatures, we are producing something new and about which there are many unanswered questions.
‘All kinds of safety hurdles need to be overcome before we start using drugs from transgenic animals. ‘I am not convinced that socalled pharming presents no risk to public health.’