The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a chicken that has been genetically engineered to produce a drug in its eggs. As part of a growing trend known as ‘farmaceuticals,’ these transgenic chicken eggs will contain a recombinant human enzyme that replaces a faulty enzyme in people with a rare, inherited condition that prevents the body from breaking down fatty molecules in cells. The drug, called Kanuma, was treated to a priority review by the FDA, which fast-tracked its approval.
For starters, let’s be clear about what that scary sounding word ‘transgenic’ means. Transgenic is basically the animal equivalent of a GMO. That is, the genes of certain animals are altered to make it do something it wouldn’t naturally do. In this case, it’s create an enzyme in the chicken eggs. Previously, the FDA approved transgenic goats in 2009 that produce an anticoagulant called ATryn (antithrombin) in their milk. In 2014, the agency gave the go-ahead for a drug for treating hereditary angioedema that is produced by transgenic rabbits.
According to the FDA and the drug company that sells the chicken-produced enzyme, the transgenic chickens aren’t intended to enter the food supply. That is, nobody is supposed to be eating these Franken-chickens. What this means is that these special chickens – genetically modified and bred to help humans – will be slaughtered and disposed of like so much of yesterday’s trash.
The FDA sped through Kanuma’s review process because the drug is in high demand. The disease that it is designed to treat, lysosomal acid lipase deficiency, causes fat to accumulate in the liver, spleen and vasculature. Infants struck with a form of the disease typically die quickly. Another form that affects older patients causes liver enlargement, fibrosis and cirrhosis, as well as cardiovascular disease.
The FDA has stated that altering the genetic material of chickens in this way won’t have an adverse effect on the environment because the animals are raised in indoor facilities. One might argue that makes for a pretty adverse environment for the chickens. Yet, geneticists are chomping at the bit to produce even more transgenic “animal drugs” such as this one. “The floodgates are opening,” said William Muir, a geneticist at Purdue University, “and I can’t wait to see what comes next.”