Get cracking with cancer fighting eggs

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Genetically modified chicken eggs may cure some cancers in the near future

By Kristina Charania
Photos by Kjetil Ree

In every child’s life, there is at least one awful creature at the petting zoo that gives you absolute hell. So, fine — you don’t have to excuse the cow that stepped on your little toe and broke it. He was obviously a total dick, anyway.

However, the chicken that pooped on your favourite bright pink gumboots needs an apology text message. Suck it up and do it, buttercup, because the likelihood that the chicken’s badass offspring will save your cancer-riddled behind one day is much higher than you’d imagine.

At the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Dr. Helen Sang’s designer hens have been clucking away for nearly five years — they produce potent cancer-fighting drugs in their eggs.

The wonderful thing about this standout genetic engineering is the simple science behind it. Equine infectious anaemia lentivirus — a bug that normally infiltrates and modifies the DNA sequences of a horse — acts as a vessel that implants human genes into unhatched chicken embryos. The result of this modification is neither a human, Shetland pony, cyborg, nor any combination of the above. Instead, the new DNA replaces the gene that codes for the production of ovalbumin, a protein constituting 54 per cent of an egg white. The modified chicken will then produce a selected drug in place of ovalbumin in subsequent eggs.

Consequentially labelling Dr. Sang as a the biotech world’s bad news bear would be a horrible error. Her innovative “pharming” — the cool kids’ term for pharmaceutical farming — has produced the miR24 antibody that may treat melanoma, the antiviral human interferon b-1a, and the beta interferon that treats multiple sclerosis. Chicken pharming is nothing short of economical, either. The average egg contains roughly 33 grams of egg white, and genetically modified chickens produce anywhere from 15 to 50 micrograms of drug per millilitre of egg white. You don’t need to be a math whiz to know that’s a whole lot of drugs. Because these hens lay approximately 300 eggs per year, the potential mass-generation of these drugs could one day be available at a fraction of the cost that they are currently available for.

Besides the high drug yield, the modifications are harmless to chickens, too: the expression of the added human genes only changes the protein composition of the egg white. So, PETA, put your little hand down; it’s okay.

Here’s the problem, though: you can’t exactly walk down aisle two at London Drugs and pick up a can of melanoma yolk potion for five bucks — but with the quickly advancing technology of the 21st century, drug-infused foods could quickly build a niche into our future diets. As a hypothetical example, the ailment-curing acetaminophen found in your Tylenol could one day be a medicinal ingredient in those yam fries you munch on at lunch. Distinguishing between our Gucci designer eggs and our imaginary, aforementioned Tylenol yam is crucial: the eggs are a mere vessel for drug fabrication, and a Tylenol yam would contain active medical ingredients intended for direct human consumption. In the latter case, little purification would likely occur during the production of these medicinal foods. Depending on the by-products and the interaction of the drug with its environment, this could pose some serious dangers and side effects for the consumer. So, before you eat anything at all, make sure these foods are at least FDA approved and have undergone clinical trials over a long period of time.

Do your research, keep reading, and stay informed, kids. You know the drill: with powerful technology comes great responsibility to stay informed.