Crack open an egg and cure a disease

WHY did the geneticist cross the chicken? To turn it into a cheap pharmaceuticals factory, it seems. Comical as it may sound, two companies are planning a pilot test of drugs in eggs laid by genetically engineered chickens.

GeneWorks of Ann Arbor, Michigan, announced this month that it has a flock of between 50 and 60 genetically engineered birds. Some carry a gene that enables them to make a human growth factor in their eggs, while others produce a human antibody.

Although the company will not name the proteins, it says that both have great potential for treating disease. According to its chief operating officer Steve Sensoli, GeneWorks has deals to make 14 proteins for six drug companies around the world.

Meanwhile, AviGenics of Athens, Georgia, has produced a human interferon for treating cancer in its flock of birds. It claims to have a slight lead on its rival because it has already managed to pass on the interferon gene to further generations of birds. With hens producing an average of 200 eggs each per year, and 100 milligrams or more of a drug in each egg, both companies believe the yields could be large and lucrative.

The companies smuggle genes into the birds using harmless forms of viruses that are engineered so they cannot replicate. The gene that makes the protein is inserted in the virus.

GeneWorks uses the reticulo endotheliosis virus as a ferry. The company uses a genetic switch that restricts production of the protein to the egg white. "We put it in a one-day-old chicken embryo by microinjecting it into a cavity called the blastoderm," explains Sensoli. He and his colleagues hope that some virus reaches primordial cells in the blastoderm which develop into sperm and eggs, so the gene for the protein can be passed down to future generations of chickens, rather than having to repeat the injection in each generation. But the company can already harvest the proteins from hens that have been injected and next year plans to open a

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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