New technique to create genetically modified chickens
Genetically modified chickens, created by Origen Therapeutics
in California, could build future flocks of birds that lay eggs with
therapeutic contents - feathered medicine factories that are cost-effective,
clean and potentially life-saving. This was unveiled in Thursday's issue of the
Last summer, Origen built chickens with human genes that lay eggs carrying
custom-made human 'monoclonal antibodies' to fight cancer. While important, this
was a laborious bird-by-bird procedure.
Transplanting genes from one
species to another has become almost routine, as gene-altered animals have
entered a commercial era.
What's different about these new birds is
that they carry inserted genes in their sperm or egg, so the alteration is
passed on to future generations. Origen won't say how many they've created,
citing proprietary concerns.
"Once we introduce a genetic change, all
the offspring and their offspring will carry that modification," said Robert
Kay, chief executive of Origen Therapeutics.
For now, the new gene
doesn't do much. It is simply a fluorescent green 'marker' gene, which causes
the birds to glow in the dark under ultraviolet light. But it proves that the
new technique works.
The next step is to create birds with genes for
a wide array of different monoclonal antibodies, which could then be tested as
therapeutic tools. By lowering the cost of producing each antibody, many more
can be tested.
The birds are White Leghorns worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars each. To get the volume of monoclonal antibodies needed for
commercialisation, Origen seeks to build a flock of 5,000 to 10,000
Once a line of birds is well-established, breeding is
relatively cheap, said McKay. He asserts that the cost of maintaining them will
cost far less than other biotech production facilities - an estimated $20
million for a facility of 10,000 birds.
Germline modification, as the
procedure is called, has been achieved in mice, as well. But because they don't
lay eggs, Origen believes they have less commercial potential.
such techniques are barred in humans in the United States, England and much of
the rest of the world, due to fears that someone will attempt to re-engineer the
collective inheritance of the entire species.
The chicken research
ruffles the feathers of animal rights advocates, which object to the mass
production of chickens in general. But Origen maintains that they're healthy and
"They look and act like any other chicken you might
find," said Kay. "But they never get near a grocery
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