Genetically modified camels could produce pharma proteins in their milk

By Natalie Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

A bumpy road to achieve a protein-producing camel
A bumpy road to achieve a protein-producing camel

Related tags: Dna

Genetically modified (GM) camels could be used as a cheap way to produce the pharmaceutical proteins used in drugs – through their milk.

Researchers Dubai’s Camel Reproduction Center are trying to insert genes that encode pharmaceutically-active proteins into camels, with the idea being that the resulting transgenic animals will express the molecules in their milk.

Lead scientist Nisar Wani says the team hopes the project will boost cost-effective drug production for the Middle East and North Africa, where affordability is low.

"Hopefully we will transfer camel transgenic embryos to surrogate mothers for the first time later this year,"​ Wani told SciDev.Net.

He also said that – for the camel DNA being used in the process – the team are focusing on a particular advantageous cell line which includes traits such as producing milk in high quantities.

The team have not yet revealed which foreign gene they are splicing with the camels’, however experts believe it is most likely the human genes which produce the desired protein.

Mark Band, the director of functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told Green Prophet: “Most likely they will insert human genes to produce proteins through the camel’s milk.”

When contacted Wani for further comment, he failed to respond.

Bumps in the road

The researchers however, have a bumpy road ahead because transgenic cloning yields infamously little success. Birth rate from cloned embryos is as little as five per cent ordinarily, and the figure drops again for transgenic animals.

But Wani et al are confident that once they have their desired camel, the project will take off. "We have crossed some critical barriers but still need to do a lot of work to reach the final destination,”​ he said.

Nevertheless the science behind the idea is not the only stumbling block – the regulators are still pondering the benefits and pitfalls of using GM stock for drugs manufacturing.

Earlier this year, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) published draft guidelines on the matter​, in which the organisation warned drugmakers to be “appropriately” ​vigilant when using the model.

The agency warned that knowledge of the technology is relatively “limited” in the world of medicine, and that wider implementation of the method could mean a whole new set of regulatory rules to do with animal care may be needed.

“Impact on animal health due to expression of the recombinant protein should be considered since expressed recombinant proteins may have potent effects on the production animals,”​ the EMA added.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also seem a little in the dark over the matter, and even admit confusion as to which department should take responsibility for GM animals.

In a Q&A published on the regulator’s website, the Center for Vetrinary Medicine’s John Matheson said: Most, but probably not all, gene-based modifications of animals for production or therapeutic claims fall under CVM regulation as new animal drugs."

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