Tweaking The Gene, Redux

Sink your — cannibalistic mouse into this article at the Guardian UK about crops modified with human genomes. No, really — researchers are “frustrated by the ‘ethical’ arguments against placing human genes into plants.” For research purposes, of course. Interesting stuff, snip from Down on the pharm:

In a windowless room on the roof of a hospital in south London, the air is being slowly sucked away. It’s not enough to notice, but it keeps the sealed laboratory at a slightly lower pressure than the air outside. It’s a security measure. The contents of this laboratory are highly controversial, and if anything escaped it would be a public relations disaster for the scientists who work here. The lab holds some of the most controversial plants in the UK, which nearby residents would be less than happy to find drifting on the breeze through their back gardens. Open the door, and air rushes in, not out.
The plants are tobacco, but they are not intended to be smoked. Instead, the scientists who work on them believe they could save lives. Each has been genetically engineered to carry a gene that is usually found in common algae. Inside its cells, the foreign DNA forces the tobacco plant to churn out a protein that is useless to it, but that happens to be a potent drug against HIV. The scientists say the drug, and others like it, could save millions of lives across the developing world. The technique has been dubbed pharmaceutical farming, or pharming, and it is emerging as the latest battleground in the war over genetic modification.
(…) The HIV drug produced by the London tobacco plants is called cyanovirin-N, which can help stop the virus entering human cells. Experiments with rhesus macaques, which have a similar reproductive physiology to humans, have suggested that the drug could dramatically cut transmission of the virus during sex, and the St George’s team wants to turn it into a cream that could be applied by women in countries where men are resistant to using condoms. “If you’re a woman in sub-Saharan Africa, you’re not going to pay even a dollar or two a week for this. It has to be pennies, and that means it has to be produced in plants,” Ma says. He reckons five tonnes of cyanovirin-N would be needed for 10 million women to have two doses a week – a production scale way beyond the economics and capabilities of conventional drug manufacturing.


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