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Cows offer hope against human illness

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Cows offer hope against human illness

A herd of 60 genetically engineered cows in northwestern Iowa could help unlock the key to producing new medicines that could treat human diseases, even cancer.The Jersey-Holstein cloned crosses, which project director Dr. Eddie Sullivan of Sanford Research Applied Biosciences in Sioux Falls said somewhat in jest receive the “best medical care anywhere,” have been genetically engineered to produce human antibodies that fight diseases.The project is far enough along that his staff of 19, including an animal care and veterinary contingent of six people who take care of the cows at a farm between Hull and Sioux Center, Iowa, is “very excited” about possibly starting human clinical trials in the first part of next year.Sullivan will be making a major presentation this month before the Federal Drug Administration and must gain its approval before the human trials can begin.The project – started at the University of Massachusetts in 1998 – took almost 12 years of genetic engineering for the cows to produce the human antibodies.What the researchers did, said Sullivan, is engineer the cows to turn off the cow antibody genes and then introduce a little piece of DNA that produces the human version of antibodies.“We basically reprogrammed the software inside the cows where they look at the human antibody and they think it’s theirs and they don’t reject it,” he said.The human antibodies also protect the cows from animal diseases.The key to helping unlock new treatments for humans, however, is that these cows can be hyper-vaccinated against all sorts of human diseases – the flu, for example.The cows then become “antibody factories” and can donate plasma with the disease-fighting antibodies two or three times a month.The other way to get human antibodies is, of course, from humans. However, Sullivan said one problem with that is a worldwide shortage of human plasma, and another is that human plasma donors can’t be hyper-vaccinated against a particular disease.The cows, however, can be, and then the antibodies can be targeted to treat people for a specific disease.Thus, the cow-produced antibodies would be much more effective in treating the illness, Sullivan said.To illustrate an example, Sullivan talked about the flu. Current flu vaccine produces antibodies to fight the disease. Yet between 35,000 and 50,000 people still die each year from the flu because they don’t get a flu shot, don’t respond well to it or contract a flu virus not covered by the vaccine, he said.The idea in this research project is that the cows would be hyper-vaccinated against a flu virus, with the human antibodies taken out of the cows and used to treat people when they come down with it.There also are many other possibilities for the antibodies. They could be used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria or in anti-venom for snake bites. Currently, anti-venom for snake bites is produced from horses, sheep or rabbits and given to people, but people can suffer adverse reactions to those treatments. If it was from one of the cows with the human antibodies, it could reduce the chance of a bad reaction, Sullivan said.The immediate target of the research is viral diseases, he said. The most advanced project is using the antibodies in fighting Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, which currently is untreatable and has a 50 percent fatality rate for people contracting the disease.“We are already producing antibodies in these cows that could be used to treat that disease,” Sullivan said. Although the disease is found primarily in the Middle East, it has been found in France, and he said the way people travel today, it could be transmitted easily in a short time to the U.S.“What we have with this technology is it’s very good in making a treatment very rapidly for an emerging infectious disease,” he said.One of the possibilities that obviously would excite people the most is a cancer treatment. What it would involve, Sullivan said, is producing human antibodies against cancer cells. The trick is being able to target the cancer cells specifically without harming a patient’s normal cells. The cancer cells have unique structures on them that normal cells don’t, so the goal would be to attach the antibodies to the unique cancer cell structures.“We are working on some projects in that area,” he said.The Sanford team, which has 13 people in its lab at the Sanford Center near the intersection of Interstate 90 and I-229 in northeastern Sioux Falls, is working with other research facilities on projects with the antibodies, including Harvard Medical School, the University of Georgia and the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center, as well as others around the world.Sanford has a patent or “exclusive ownership” of “everything involved in the project,” Sullivan said, and it has the only such cow herd in the world.There are other genetically engineered animals in the research field, but they mostly are mice, which he said don’t produce a lot of antibodies.The initial cloning is done at the Sanford Center using cow eggs harvested from a slaughterhouse in Yankton, S.D., with the eggs going through a series of steps that includes replacing the DNA and using a chemical process to trick the egg into believing it’s been fertilized by sperm, allowing an embryo to be grown.After seven days, it’s transferred into a cow by Trans-Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, and nine months later a baby calf is born at the farm with the genetics needed to produce the human antibodies.Sullivan realizes there is some controversy surrounding the cloned cows and genetic engineering, but “I imagine that’s true for almost anything you do.”“We understand people’s feelings, but we think this is important because we are trying to help people, not to hurt anybody or anything. It’s to help people.”It’s as a sign says on the driveway leading to the Sanford Center: “Road to the Cure.”From TriStateNeighbor.com

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