What if cancer-treating drugs of tomorrow began in a chicken shed? University of Edinburgh researchers said they've genetically modified hens that can lay eggs containing a protein able to treat cancer.
With only three eggs needed to produce a drug dosage, they said, the chickens could provide a cheaper way to make drugs that might one day aid human patients.
Protein-based drugs commonly used to treat cancer and other diseases, such as Avastin, can be expensive to produce and have relatively low yields, researchers said last month in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Biotechnology.
The modified chickens produce those proteins in their egg whites. And chicken sheds are far cheaper to maintain than sterilized rooms used for factory production, the BBC reported.
"Production from chickens can cost anywhere from 10 to 100 times less than the factories," Lissa Herron, a biochemist with Roslin Technologies, a commercial arm of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, told the network. "So hopefully, we'll be looking at at least 10 times lower overall manufacturing cost."
Drugs using genetically modified animals have been approved in the past: The first, a blood thinner made from an altered goat's milk, received FDA approval in 2009, researchers note in the journal. But hens are more efficient, they say, because larger mammals require more space and feed than chickens.
The FDA approved an earlier chicken-sourced drug, Kanuma, used to treat a rare genetic condition, in 2015. Before approval, the FDA monitored the modified chickens over "several generations" to ensure their safety and made sure they were kept in "highly secure indoor facilities" to assure they could not enter the nation's food supply, according to a statement.
Edinburgh's birds would follow the same regulatory path, Herron said. For now, she told BBC, the animals live in large pens under watch of trained technicians, oblivious to their modification.
"It doesn't affect its health in any way," she told the network. "It's just chugging away, laying eggs as normal."
Encoding human proteins into the chicken's DNA lets hens produce them in their egg whites, the university explained. Researchers focused on two human proteins at first: one with anti-cancer effects and another aimed at tissue repair.
Developing the chicken-sourced drugs for humans (and passing regulatory requirements) could take a decade or two, Herron told USA TODAY, but researchers hope to develop drugs for use on animals, too.
"We are not yet producing medicines for people," said Helen Sang, a developmental biology professor at Edinburgh, "but this study shows that chickens are commercially viable for producing proteins suitable for drug discovery studies and other applications in biotechnology."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chickens lay eggs containing cancer-fighting treatments, research says