More MS news articles for December 2000

Chickens become feathered pharmaceutical producers

Sunday, December 3, 2000
By United Press International

A genetically modified chicken whose descendants are intended to join an army of special purpose medical supply animals will be introduced to the world Wednesday but not without intensifying the controversy over the human race's widening mass production of specialized bioengineered creatures.
A successfully modified chicken, named Britney, will be unveiled by the Roslin Institute, which accomplished the breakthrough cloning of Dolly the sheep, at Edinburgh Castle on Wednesday, The Mail newspaper reported today.

The Mail was one of several British publications that saw the development first reported in New Scientist magazine and promoted for months by an Athens, Georgia research firm as a flash point that will rally various organizations to renew their fight against genetic modifications of living organisms.

Although participating in the field of endeavor, even the Roslin Institute has criticized the way other organizations and companies are developing such special-purpose animals without publishing scientific papers or otherwise notifying the public at large.

One company, GeneWorks, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has reportedly produced a flock of 60 such chickens, which pass on their genetic modifications to successive generations.

Each modified chicken should lay about 250 eggs per year from which a variety of proteins in relatively large volumes can be easily extracted, functioning as mini pharmaceutical plants with feathers.

Groups which have found their objections to genetically modified food have resonated among consumers in Europe have not had the same impact on genetically modified medicine.

One such group, Compassion in World Farming, claimed that genetically modifying animals to produce medicine is unnecessary because there are alternative ways to do it.

A spokesman for Friends of the Earth, which has long campaigned against genetically modified food, said "Genetically modifying animals so they become drug factories raises serious ethical questions. The technology is well ahead of the debate."

Pigs, sheep, goats, bacteria and fungus have been modified to produce vaccine components, antibodies, hormones like insulin and other medical materials aimed at treating diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and a host of other ailments.

GeneWorks already has deals to make 14 proteins for six drug companies around the world. Another American company, AviGenics, of Athens, Georgia, also claims the ability to engineer its chickens to produce a chemical for treating cancer and has managed to pass on the necessary gene to further generations of birds. It plans a production plant next year," according to New Scientist and The Express newspapers.

AviGenics advertises itself as a specialist in avian transgenesis, and company materials say that eggs from transgenic poultry can yield large quantities of valuable proteins at relatively low cost, giving the pharmaceutical industry "a very low-cost protein expression system."

AviGenics' co-founder Robert Ivarie calls its special chickens "hen oviduct bioreactor technology" that can produce biopharmaceuticals, blood factors, monoclonal antibodies and animal feed enzymes. For now, however, the company says it will focus on "crude proteins" on behalf of pharmaceutical companies after meeting regulatory registration requirements.

GeneWorks said it does not publish the results of its research because of competitive pressures, although all but two of the proteins that it is designing chickens to produce are not widely known to be possible to manufacture in that way, The Express said.

Compassion in World Farming's Joyce da Silva said: "It's as if we are determined to develop a sub-class of animals which have been tampered with so we can extract things which might possibly be of benefit to man."

The chicken eggs contain the tailored proteins in their whites and should be the main components of a commercially viable drug manufacturing operation within two years, the Mail reported today.

Until now, producing even small quantities of certain proteins in the laboratory has proved to be too expensive to be practical. Britney the hen, to be put on display by the Roslin Institute, is the product of two years of development by the U.S. biotechnology firm Viragen Inc., of Plantation, Florida, Scotland and the United Kingdom, as well as the Roslin Institute, according to the reports. Viragen Inc. is primarily known as a firm that wants to distribute worldwide a proprietary brand of interferon made from white blood cells supplied largely by the Red Cross in the United States and Europe.

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