Animals that have had their DNA manipulated to possess and express an extra (foreign) gene are known as transgenic animals. Transgenic rats, rabbits, pigs, sheep, cows and fish have been produced, although over 95 per cent of all existing transgenic animals are mice.
Why are these animals being produced? How can man benefit from such modifications?
Let us try and explore some of the common reasons:
- Normal physiology and development: Transgenic animals can be specifically designed to allow the study of how genes are regulated, and how they affect the normal functions of the body and its development, e.g., study of complex factors involved in growth such as insulin-like growth factor.
By introducing genes from other species that alter the formation of this factor and studying the biological effects that result, information is obtained about the biological role of the factor in the body.
- Study of disease: Many transgenic animals are designed to increase our understanding of how genes contribute to the development of disease. These are specially made to serve as models for human diseases so that investigation of new treatments for diseases is made possible.
Today transgenic models exist for many human diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
- Biological products: Medicines required to treat certain human diseases can contain biological products, but such products are often expensive to make.
Transgenic animals that produce useful biological products can be created by the introduction of the portion of DNA (or genes) which codes for a particular product such as human protein (α-1-antitrypsin) used to treat emphysema. Similar attempts are being made for treatment of phenylketonuria (PKU) and cystic fibrosis. In 1997, the first transgenic cow, Rosie, produced human protein-enriched milk (2.4 grams per litre). The milk contained the human alpha-lactalbumin and was nutritionally a more balanced product for human babies than natural cow-milk.
- Vaccine safety: Transgenic mice are being developed for use in testing the safety of vaccines before they are used on humans. Transgenic mice are being used to test the safety of the polio vaccine.
If successful and found to be reliable, they could replace the use of monkeys to test the safety of batches of the vaccine.
- Chemical safety testing: This is known as toxicity/safety testing. The procedure is the same as that used for testing toxicity of drugs. Transgenic animals are made that carry genes which make them more sensitive to toxic substances than non-transgenic animals.
They are then exposed to the toxic substances and the effects studied. Toxicity testing in such animals will allow us to obtain results in less time.