You may have heard the children’s story about the goose who laid the golden egg, but have you heard the very real story about the genetically modified chickens who laid the cancer-fighting eggs? This latter project is something that researchers from the U.K.’s University of Edinburgh have been working on.
After splicing a human gene into chicken DNA, the researchers found that eggs laid by the gene-edited chickens contained elevated levels of cancer-treating proteins in their egg whites. This process did not have any noticeable negative effect on the chickens. It could represent a new method of producing these valuable proteins in a manner that is up to 100 times cheaper than the current cost of producing them in a factory.
“Proteins are widely used in research, and are also an important class of medicines, with famous examples being insulin, interferon, and monoclonal antibodies like Herceptin and Humira,” Dr. Lissa Herron, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “These drugs treat diseases that sometimes stop — or never started — responding to traditional small molecule drugs, such as autoimmune diseases and cancer. Protein drugs are expensive to manufacture because they can’t be chemically synthesised in a lab. They need a biological system to produce them, such as bacteria or cells derived from mammals.”
Of these two options, bacteria represented the cheapest previous method of producing proteins. However, that method is unable to produce the more complex proteins such as antibodies. Meanwhile, mammalian cells are an expensive alternative because their production requires dedicated specialist facilities and growing conditions.
“We hope that by using animals that already make large amounts of protein in easily accessible formats, like milk and eggs, we can reduce the overall cost of production of these drugs,” Herron continued. “Also, some proteins have characteristics that make them difficult to make cost effectively in cells, but which the chicken can do easily. These are the proteins we’ll be targeting.”
Initially, the researchers plan to sell their proteins to other researchers. They then hope to use the discovery to develop protein drugs for animal health, followed by ones intended for humans. “The animal health market at the moment can’t afford most protein drugs, due to their cost, so we hope to change that,” Herron said.
A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal BMC Biotechnology.