This is not a chicken, it is a medicine factory at the rate of 300 eggs a year
Discovering a new treatment that works is only half the job. It is something that needs millions of euros, hundreds of people and dozens of years, but it is useless if it does not reach hospitals. It seems like a no-brainer, but the truth is that as treatment manufacturing processes become more complex, expensive, and rooted: much of the world is left out of the impact of new drugs.
As we can see, as much as we don't normally talk about this, research on how to produce drugs is crucial. Now the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, whom you will meet from other successes like Dolly the sheep, are trying to genetically modify chickens to turn them into living factories of human proteins.
What was before the egg or medicine?
The emergence of monoclonal antibody therapies was a bomb in medicine in the past few decades. Bevacizumab, for example, is used in the treatment of various cancers of the colon, breast, lung (non-small cell), or kidney. And trastuzumab (although it can only be used to treat tumors that overexpress the HER2 protein or have amplification of the HER2 gene) has been shown to be effective with gastric, breast and esophageal cancer.
However, producing this type of protein is quite complex. Both Bevacizumab and trastuzumab are produced by culturing Chinese hamster ovary cells in the laboratory. The other methods are either more complex or involve processing processes that make them infeasible. This makes treatments more expensive and a barrier to their cheap international production.
Roslin's approach is different. This has previously been tried to produce protein in the milk or eggs of different animals, but Scottish researchers appear to be the first to develop a well-defined system for using genetically modified chicken eggs to produce human protein.
To be fair, eggs are already used in drug development: without going any further, now that the annual epidemic is upon us, they are used in the flu vaccine manufacturing process. What happens is that in this case the approach is slightly different because it is necessary to introduce a genetic variation so that they produce the proteins in the white of the egg, but the rest of the industrial process is similar.
From the laboratory to the pharmacy
Anyway, it is early to sing victory. As the researchers explain, their work has focused on producing high-quality proteins for research use. The team tested two specific proteins, IFNalpha2a related to cancer immunological treatments and the macrophage-CSF that is being used to stimulate tissue repair.
The fact of the matter is that the results are so good in both quality and quantity (it only took three eggs to produce a clinically relevant dose) that they suggest we have found a cheap, fast and safe new protein production method. One that still has a lot to develop.
To the extent that laying hens can lay 300 eggs per year and that large amounts of the proteins can be extracted from the whites with a simple purification system, the approach could be an excellent alternative to the methods used today by today. It has no side effects on animals and will simplify the process to take it around the world. Much remains to be done, but it is not bad news to start on Monday.
Images | Roslin Institute