chicken egg

Researchers from Japan have bred genetically engineered chickens that lay eggs carrying interferon beta, a protein known to fight diseases like cancer and hepatitis. The method could eventually cut the cost of producing this important cancer-fighting agent by 90 percent.

People often warn about the dangers of cholesterol consumed from eating too many eggs but the chicken egg has a long history in medicine. The flu vaccines are being produced using an egg-based manufacturing process for more than 70 years. Now, researchers successfully genetically engineered chickens to lay eggs that contain a special pharmaceutical agent that can help fight cancer and other immune-related maladies.

According to a report by The Japan News, the group at National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) genetically modified precursor cells of chicken sperm to produce a type of protein that plays an important role in the functioning immune system, interferon beta. It has been found to be effective in treating various diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), certain types of cancer (like malignant skin cancer), hepatitis, and is used for virus research.

The modified gametes were used to fertilize eggs that only produced male chicks. The hatched male chicks were crossbred with several females to rear offspring with the inherited protein-producing genes. That allowed the grown hens to themselves lay eggs containing the cancer-fighting agent in the egg whites. Currently, three females are each laying eggs every one or two days.

A research team consisting of AIST, the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Ibaraki Prefecture and the reagent import and sales firm Cosmo Bio Co. in Tokyo developed the method.

 “This is a result that we hope leads to the development of cheap drugs,” Hironobu Hojo, a professor at Osaka University, told The Japan News.

Step forward, the researchers plan to stabilize the interferon beta contents of the eggs to produce up to 100 milligrams from a single egg. In the future, that would result in a dramatic reduction in production costs. Conventional production is expensive and just a few micrograms of the substance can cost as much as $900. A joint research company plans to start selling the drug as a research reagent next year. Starting at a price about half that of the conventional product and eventually lowering price to less than 10 percent of the current one.

At the moment, the cancer-fighting eggs are to be used only in a laboratory setting. In the next steps, they could be approved for human consumption if the chicken-laid drugs pass high safety standards for pharmaceutical drugs and inspection by health authorities.

“In the future, it will be necessary to closely examine the characteristics of the agents contained in the eggs and determine their safety as pharmaceutical products,” Professor Hojo said.

This sort of genetic engineering could go in other directions too. From the use of CRISPR for attempts at growing dinosaur legs on a chicken to the preservation of rare chicken breeds that may be resistant to global infections like the bird flu. Without a doubt, chickens and their eggs are going to remain an important subject in the coming medical science.

Learn more about genetically modified hens which could one day serve as surrogates for other birds in the video below:

You are interested in how scientists grow flu inside an egg? Watch the video below:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc