Imagine this: Goats, genetically engineered to produce malaria vaccine in their milk, are bred and distributed to African villages. Locals drink the milk, or receive the extracted vaccine, and are immunized against the disease, which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, most of them children in Africa.
In fact, the scenario requires little imagination. Scientists in Texas, including Mark Westhusin, a specialist in reproductive biology at Texas A&M University, have already created animals like this in collaboration with a company called rEVO Biologics. Years of testing, trials, and regulatory challenges await, but the science exists and shows tremendous promise, Westhusin says.
That’s due in large part to pioneering work by two former University of Massachusetts researchers, James Robl and Steven Stice, who made a worldwide splash in 1998 by announcing that they had successfully cloned transgenic calves. Through genetic engineering prior to cloning, they were able to create calves with tailored genes.
The breakthrough by Robl and Stice, which came about a year after scientists in Scotland created the sheep Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, opened up a world of possibility. If you could insert specific genetic instructions into animals and their offspring, that suggested you could program livestock to produce higher quality meat, resist disease, or produce drugs or therapies for humans, perhaps more efficiently than manufacturing facilities.
“That was one of the major events and factors that pushed this thing forward,” Westhusin says of the work by Robl and Stice, who cofounded a company called Advanced Cell Technology. “Most people still use this technique that involves engineering the cells first and then cloning, like Steve and Jim did.”
These advances certainly have their critics, including animal welfare advocates such as Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States. Conlee says cloning and genetic engineering are still “highly experimental” and lead to unnecessary suffering. She urges more investment in research not involving animals.
As for Stice and Robl, both left UMass not long after their big moment, partly over friction with the university regarding commercialization of their work. Stice was lured away by the University of Georgia, becoming a prominent research scientist and professor there. Robl went to work for another company he helped found, Hematech, before retiring in 2009.