Groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working hard on an effective vaccine for malaria—a disease that still kills more than 650,000 people every year. But to hear Mark Westhusin tell it, future malaria drugs shouldn’t be produced in laboratories. They should come from common animals, like goats.
Westhusin, a professor at Texas A&M, is genetically modifying goats to produce vaccines in their milk, doing work that both cheers GM fans, and unnerves its critics. Westhusin points to many of the advantages of so called "pharm animals," including reduced drug production and storage costs. He says a small herd of GM goats could produce millions of vaccine doses, though it’s still too early in his research to make completely accurate estimates.
"There is tremendous potential to produce malaria vaccines and other types of medicines, especially for Third World countries," he says. "If you produce these proteins in goats and other transgenic animals, it’s way more efficient, and cheaper, than the old-fashioned ways."
The first malaria vaccine-producing goats were developed back in the late 1990s. But the company behind the work shelved the program after losing public funding, and deciding other pharm drugs were more commercially viable.
Westhusin says he thought the work was too useful to sit idling. So, he took back frozen embryos from the company, and "re-derived" the herd. Two new kids were born this month.
At the moment, vaccine in the milk must first be isolated and purified before it can be injected. But Westhusin says with further research, and further funding, the goats could produce a drinkable vaccine, perhaps within another decade.
Scientists are using goats for several other remedies. Another team at U.C. Davis is rearing the animals for milk with increased levels of lysozyme—an enzyme that protects against diarrheal diseases.
Given the potential, Westhusin doesn’t have time for animal welfare or anti-GM activists. "These projects are great. But they run up against a lot of hurdles. One of the first are the animal welfare groups who jump on top of this, and say we shouldn’t be using animals for anything," he says. "You know, blah, blah, blah."
Once he gets going, it is impossible to get a word in as Westhusin talks about all of GM’s foes, including the F.D.A., the conventional drug industry, and the general public, who he says fails to appreciate the technology.
He’s hoping, though, that the final decisions won’t be made here, and that the countries that really need the drugs won’t be so squeamish about where they come from.