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Friday, February 13, 2009

Pharm animals

Pharm goatPharmaceutical companies have been experimenting with using genetically altered animals to produce their drugs for them. On one hand, I can't help but marvel at how completely amazing this scientific feat is yet I also can't help but wonder of the potential dangers inherent in the production of animals to produce substances, medications at that, which could (and will invariably) end up in natural populations, no matter how strict separation of the animal populations are.

What am I talking about? Well, let me give you a concrete example. One, which, is rather astounding. As covered in a recent NY Times article, F.D.A. Approves Drug From Gene-Altered Goats:

The drug, meant to prevent fatal blood clots in people with a rare condition, is a human protein extracted from the milk of genetically engineered goats. ...

Made by a company called GTC Biotherapeutics, the human anticlotting protein is produced by a herd of 200 bioengineered goats living under carefully controlled conditions on a farm in central Massachusetts.

Proponents say such “pharm animals” could become a means of producing biotechnology drugs at lower cost or in greater quantities than the existing methods — which include extracting proteins from donated human blood or growing them in large steel vats of genetically engineered cells.

The protein in the goat milk, antithrombin, is sometimes in short supply or unavailable for pharmaceutical use because of a shortage of human plasma donations. GTC Biotherapeutics said one of its goats can produce as much antithrombin in a year as can be derived from 90,000 blood donations. And if more drug is needed, the herd can be expanded.

One goat = 90,000 blood donations? That's rather miraculous as far as I'm concerned. But what are the risks?

Well, cross-breeding of the animals, albeit unlikely since these are highly controlled populations (not to mention worth a tremendous amount to the "manufacturer"), presents a risk. Concerns that the milk or meat might enter the food supply are generally unfounded given the controlled nature. But, all it takes is some mistake or nefarious employee looking to gain a few bucks to crack the system. I honestly don't think it is likely, but it does present a possibility.

As the NY Times reported, "this is the first drug from a herd of genetically engineered animals created specifically to serve as living pharmaceutical factories." So, what issues does this bring up for you in regards to animal rights, environmental or public health risk?

In other words, are you fine with this sort of animal "technology" or does it make you uneasy?

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have very mixed feelings about this,but it makes me think a lot about Oryx and Crake by M. Atwood...

~kt

Lilith said...

As an ingeneer in Biologic sciences, even if I don't actually work in that domain I have learnt a lot about those kinds of GMOs to get my degree. I agree with you, those animals are probably under so much control that a "leak of DNA" is far from being probable as it is the case with vegetal GMOs.
Anyway I can't prevent myself from feeling uncomfortable with that, firstly because it is manipulating a species for our convenience only because we think this species is inferior to ours (looks like slavery for me), and then because it's impossible to have no risk at all, and I feel like a shadow of threat above it all...
On the other hand, yes, these new kind of drug production are a hope for many many diseased people in the world. So, what solution should we choose ?
Anyway I know I wouldn't feel comfortable with the idea of taking drugs produced by modified goats, unless it is "do or die". Maybe this kind of production should be reserved to critical drugs, like those who can't be properly produced by another way ?

Around the Sound: Seattle said...

I also have mixed feelings about scientific experiments like this. Stories like this always conjure up images of mad scientists and foreshadowings of doom. On the one hand, medical advances such as these are amazing, and on the other, we must question whether any medical advancement achieved through such unnatural means can really be deemed healthy.

Anonymous said...

Ugh! I also feel conflicted about this. As someone else said, I'd only consider these types of drugs if it was a do or die situation. Being a vegetarian, I have a problem with it, but I also really dislike manipulating any species dna like that - seems creepy and potentially fraught with disaster, even if that potential is very low.

Greenpa said...

I'm not so conflicted. This is one of the few places where genetic engineering might actually be very beneficial- and not very dangerous.

There are a lot of "orphan" diseases, where Big Pharm is just not interested in either the expensive research or setting up a factory for a couple hundred people. This kind of approach is really very nifty.

I think part of the reason people do worry is because we've gotten used to the incredibly lax oversight instigated by the Bush regime. Every corps of inspectors in the country was gutted and demoralized; and they're still crippled.

Anybody want a peanut?

We need our well intentioned, well trained, and honest inspectors back. Those are "green jobs", too- making sure stuff actually works like it's supposed to. The idea that companies can or should do their own internal police work is beyond absurd.

Now- GMO plants out in the open world? Bad, bad idea.

Carmen said...

I also have mixed feelings on this. As much as we know about all this, there is so much we don't know. We never seem to learn about the negative side until the damage is already done...

Bucky said...

I'm with Greenpa on this one. Unlike GMO crops, the danger of accidental release of these engineered animals into the wild is extremely small. But still a concern.

We need strict oversight, which has been completely lacking for the past few years.

I don't have any ethical qualms about this necessarily. I eat meat and use other animal by-products. Altering goats to produce medicine in their milk doesn't seem at all inhumane (unlike animal testing of cosmetics, for instance). It doesn't appear that the animals suffer in any way.

Healing Green said...

Given the industry's track record with animal treatment, it makes me uneasy. If they can treat horses (Premarin) and chimps (research labs) so badly, animals which most people have more compassion for than others, how are these designed goats going to be treated? Like "crops", most likely, just like the animals "grown" by CAFOs are called.

blondeoverboard said...

just because we can doesn't mean we should.

katie z said...

That's not natural, so it makes me VERY uncomfortable... disturbed. What's to stop them from turning humans into medical factories down the road?

Bucky said...

@Katie

You are right -- turning animals into pharm factories isn't natural. But there is nothing natural about modern medicine.

I am completely against using GMO plants and animals in our food supply. However, a small number of animals modified to produce a naturally occurring chemical for medical needs seems an acceptable risk to me.

As for turning people into living drug factories -- while that isn't necessarily outside the realm of science fiction possibility, there are far too many more realistic things in life to worry about.

LadyCiani said...

I on the fence on this one. I see the medical benefit for so many people who need things like blood transfusions, but I also dislike the inherent risks of cross breeding.

Granted as Crunchy pointed out this particular goat herd is extremely valuable to the farmer, so escape and cross breeding are unlikely.

However, modern medicine has been working with smaller animals like mice and rats for years, and there are a number of these smaller animals that are bred to develop certain illnesses - diabetes, tumors, specific cancers - so the researchers can test vaccines and drugs on them. It's the "loss" and "escape" of these animals due to conditions like natural disasters and general negligence that concerns me.

Lilith said...

Bucky wrote something interesting : if there is no suffering of the animals, why bother ?
Here again I do't feel at ease with the subject. I'm imagining myself at their place : what if a scientist grafted me a third arm without asking me ? It wouldn't make me suffer, and it even may be useful in some way (who never dreamt about having some more arms to do more things in the same time ?). But still, would I bother being modified ? Yes indeed.

Amber said...

I'm on the fence a bit. The particular case you cite here isn't so bad. But I wonder how far it can go, and what the ramifications can be. Right now we're talking about goat's milk, which is easily produced and does not hurt the animal. But what else may we harvest from animals, and how would we modify them to get it? I suppose it would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

I might feel differently about this if I didn't eat meat or consume dairy products. Since I do, I'm not sure there's much of a difference to the goat how that milk is used.

Bucky said...

@Lilith

Interesting thought experiment. We differ, I think in that I don't attribute to animals the same cognitive abilities that I attribute (sometimes erroneously) to my fellow humans.

Would I suffer from having an extra arm? Yes. The social consequences would be profound, although not necessarily dire. Would a pig suffer from having an extra limb? Very doubtful.

I am a firm believer that we need to treat the animals in our care as humanely as possible. As much for ourselves as for the animals. Intentional cruelty to other living things degrades us as humans.

As Amber and others have pointed out, we raise animals for food. I don't see much difference in raising them for medical reasons. Suppose that we could genetically modify a pig so that its organs could be readily and easily transplantable into humans? Is there any ethical reason we shouldn't do that? We raise them to make scrapple, would raising them for a heart be different?

kettunainen said...

I find the notion of genetic engineering absolutely horrifying, as well as the notion of pharm animals.

In order for a goat to continue to produce milk, it has to breed. The kids will likely then be enslaved (if female) or slaughtered (if male), right? What other good would they be, except to experiment on?

I find it repugnant that it's ok to be anti-slave labour where people are concerned but to not really think twice about the notion that these poor animals are slaves to people. (I'm vegan, for what it's worth.)

It's all one giant experiment and I want no part of it. I wish genetic engineering would go the way of the dodo. Seriously. We are tampering with things that are not meant to be tampered with, and it's going to bite us in the butt.

Sharlene said...

While I am not exactly a fan of this whole genre I certainly haven't complained about it when it helped keep loved ones alive. Technology seems to often walk a fine line with regards to morality. I think its best to look at things on a case by case basis

Bucky said...

@kettunainen

I agree with you that there are many frightening aspects to genetic engineering. However, that cat is already out of the bag. I would love to see some serious regulation and oversight, but given the stranglehold corporate America has on our government, that doesn't seem likely.

I can certainly see some of the potential benefits that might arise from genetic engineering. There is a huge potential for an end to the HIV/AIDS crisis from some promising genetic engineering research. Many other diseases and illnesses as well.

Still, there is much mischief to be made and the laws of unintended consequences tells me that we might just create more problems than we solve.

What a puzzlement.

We, as a society, need to have these discussions (thanks, Crunchy!) so we can make informed decisions about these matters instead of letting corporate greed make them for us.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I'd like to see the goats' living conditions. I know how hard it can be to keep them in a pen, and just one slip-up can result in the modified gene escaping into outside populations. For that reason, I'm wary.

I'd like to know if this is something considered humane, or is it something like the estrogen from horse urine issue. If it is humane and the goats are living happy, healthy lives, then I say go for it. If not, then I'm opposed in theory, but again if it's saving human lives, I'm not so sure...

RC said...

I'm in favor, along with Greenpa on this one.
For those who have some weird attachment to the natural, may I suggest they understand that tobacco is natural, arsenic is natural, ricin is natural, radon is natural, opium is natural, and really, all those nasty diseases we suffer or even die from are natural, as are birth defects.
The natural argument is strictly invalid.

Robj98168 said...

Like KT I have mixed feelings about this. Don't these guys watch the sci-fi channel? Of course, since Race horses and I take the same medication, (furosemide) Maybe I wont say much about it. BUt still, could goat boy be a possibility?

Michelle said...

If you don't want to eat GMO food stuffs, then why would you be OK with taking GMO derived medications. It seems to me they are different sides of the same coin.

Anonymous said...

If the species didn't evolve that way or God did not make it that way, people shouldn't either. Maybe I missed something, but what was wrong with using a "regular" goat? Andrea

Bucky said...

@Michele

There are many problems with GMO crops and animals. Sustainability and environmental damage are two of the major ones. GMO food is generally highly dependent on fossil fueled agribusiness.

Yes, there is also some concern about the health of eating genetically engineered food. I don't see this same problem with GMO medicine. As I stated earlier, there is nothing natural about modern Western medicine. Whether it is manufactured in a pharmaceutical plant or derived from GMO goat's milk, it's still a manufactured chemical.

Anonymous said...

Maybe now it's "controlled", but one day it will be out of control.
It happened so many times before...
Somethimes the thing that people do scare me...

Heather said...

@ Andrea,

Unfortunately, you can't use the milk of a 'regular' goat like this . The genetic engineering was to make it so the milk of the goat had something in it (the blood-clotting protein antithrombin) that wasn't normally there. Either you GM the goat, you make that protein some other way, you extract it from blood donated from humans, or you let the hemophiliacs die - using 'regular' goats isn't an option, unfortunately.

XUP said...

Very uneasy. All this biological engineering can't end well. Everything they've implemented so far has turned into a horror freak show. I wish they'd spend all their fabulous resources on looking at cleaning things up and preventing lifestyle/environmental disease instead of always looking for so-called cures, which really only means drugs that will put zillions into pharma conglomerate pockets

Bucky said...

@Anon

Maybe now it's "controlled", but one day it will be out of control.

This is real concern. We've certainly seen this with the GMO crops.

I'm less worried about large animals such as goats impacting the larger environment. These animals are easily contained and the reproductive impact is relatively slow and small.

The biggest and most worrisome threat is from the genetic manipulation of bacteria such as E. Coli. Because the E. Coli genome is well known, it is often used in genetic manipulation research. Currently, there are experiments in which E. Coli have been modified to produce fuel for automobiles. Unfortunately, E. Coli is also a bacteria that resides in the digestive tracts of humans and other animals. Because bacteria are microscopic and reproduce rapidly, the chance of introducing genetically modified strains into the natural population is all but inevitable.

Do we really want to worry about having our food supply contaminated with a bacteria that produces unleaded gas?

Some things just aren't worth the risk.

Erika said...

Although it wasn't from genetic engineering, we have kept animals for the sole purpose of manufacturing pharmaceuticals. In the 18 and 1900's, cities would keep herds of calves that they would use to grow smallpox vaccine. They would make cuts in the skin of their bellies and rub in bits of vaccine, which the calves would then "incubate" until they had large sacs of vaccine (they called it "lymph") protruding from their abdomens. Once the calf was "used up" as far as vaccine production, they were sent to farms outside the city to be used as any other calf.

It's one thing to keep an animal for a specific use - e.g. guard dog, mouser cat, milk cow, etc., but to keep an animal only for the purposes of extracting something that doesn't naturally occur in it, just seems... cruel. It's also troubling to know that something is happening so these particular goats can lactate - either they are producing kids that are also genetically modified (at least I'm assuming they would be), or they're being filled with hormones (not to mention where those go when the goat is "done" with them)... neither picture sounds remotely alright with me.

I'm just not sure I can be okay with genetic engineering of whole beings... skin cells, sure, proteins, alright, but when you get into the whole animal/plant, it's just creepy. But then again, maybe I'm not okay with the skin cells and proteins either... I think I'll go join the herd of folks on the fence...

--Erika

LHT Rider said...

Emotionally, I'm not comfortable with GMOs. The corporations making them don't seem to care whether or not it would be a good idea to make them beyond the possible near-term impact to the bottom line. This is extremely short-sighted and it's behavior we've seen over and over again in big industry.

From an animal welfare perspective, I think there will likely be problems with this. The animals are so valuable to the corporation and security will need to be so high, I doubt these animals will ever see the natural light of day, or a blade of grass.

*IF* I thought of animals as production units (as any industrial scale business seems to) with a high risk of piracy, those "production units" would live their lives in secret, well-guarded, concrete bunkers, packed as closely together as possible. Factory conditions would only be considered from the perspective of the balance sheet.

Inspectors would be great, but don't think the public or the media would be allowed to actually see these operations as that might jeopardize security. Furthermore as a society, we can't even agree there are animal welfare problems with a variety of conventional industrial animal husbandry practices. This is unlikely to be any different.

Anonymous said...

We all hate the use of animals in drug trials but when it comes to scientific break throughs the use of animals for these purposes is quite legitimate in my opinion.

Many diseases have been wiped from our planet because of drug advances. If it wasn't for testing on animals - many discoveries would not have been made.

Sure, you don't like to see the footage of it, but if it came to your children - live a life of suffering through asthma, diabetes, childhood cancer or run experiements on animals bred specifically for the purpose I would say breed and test the animals for sure.

I know this comment may be controversial, but it is truly what I think.

Aby.

sealander said...

While this may or may not be a good thing, I'd just like to point out that it is not exactly new. I can recall reports going back to the early nineties regarding the use of recombinant DNA techniques to produce livestock that produce particular proteins in their milk. Insulin has been produced by altered bacteria for quite some time too. You'd do better to worry about the presence of genetically modified soy beans, given how pervasive soy is in US food production.

Susan Och said...

It seems that this is two issues rolled into one. There are comments about GMOs and comments about livestock in general.

If it were possible to use conventional breeding techniques to produce goats that could do the same thing, and these goats were raised on good pasture and enjoyed spacious accommodations would that be OK?

ragamuffin yogini said...

NO NO NO NO NO. It is just WRONG...read Brave New World Revisted for thoughts on medical advances and the population explosion....

SoapBoxTech said...

Controversial topic indeed.

My problem with GMO is that people don't tend to know when enough is enough, and that they often like to make decisions either without enough information or that they hold off making a decision for far too long, waiting for all the information to come in.

In some ways, we have been involved in genetic modification since we first entered into agriculture, through selective breeding. Evolution is nature's genetic modification. However, once we understood DNA to the point of being able to manipulate it, we began to tread into deep water. Recombinant modification has been around since the 90's but, by my understanding, we still do not really know the long-term ramifications of this kind of genetic manipulation or of using products derived from the organisms, be they plant or animal.

And then, before truly understanding these ramifications, we marched right along into transgenic GMO. The best known example of transgenic GMO are the "roundup ready" seeds offered by Monsanto. These seeds are "roundup ready" because of portions of DNA taken from bacteria and introduced into the grain DNA. So I wonder if those GMO goats were entirely goats or if this was yet another product of transgenic manipulation. It is in the transgenic area of GMO where I find the most reasons for concern.

BoysMom said...

I would be happy with it if the goats were sterile or also engineered in such a way as to be unable to breed with any goats outside their herd, and protocal for unneeded offspring/non-productive individuals was such that there was no chance of them entering the food chain.

Maybe while they're changing the milk they could also turn the meat bright blue so no one would even think of eating it. It shouldn't take that much more tinkering to render the pharma goats a seperate species, and it would nice to have a visible marker on the live animal as to what it was for as well. Code the chemical formula for what they produce into their horns, maybe?

I don't know how the milk has to be processed to get the product out, but if it didn't, think for a moment about the benefits of this in a decaying civilization. Got type 1 diabetes? Get an insulin producing goat and drink your cup of milk five times a day and you'll live. Think about those possibilities for a minute.

Betty Black said...

I wrote a little thing about this on my blog. It was way too long for a comment.

http://littlebitblack.blogspot.com/2009/02/goats-and-gmos.html

Rebekka said...

"Got type 1 diabetes? Get an insulin producing goat and drink your cup of milk five times a day and you'll live."

That might work if insulin didn't have to be injected.

I'm with Greenpa.

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