A genetically engineered hen is able to produce "golden eggs" containing a very particular protein (interferon beta) that may help treat diseases as diverse as cancer, hepatitis, and multiple sclerosis (MS).
It might sound a lot like snake oil medicines – those pseudoscientific wonder supplements claiming to cure all ills from HIV to impotence to acne – but there is a little more scientific evidence to suggest they do actually work. Interferon beta is an anti-viral protein naturally produced by the human body to help ward off infections and it is thought that a medically assisted top-up of the protein may just boost a sick individual's capacity to fight off certain infections and diseases, including some (like cancer) that have the potential to be deadly.
There is, however, a problem. Interferon beta is extremely difficult to produce artificially. So, to overcome this hurdle, scientists have devised an innovative solution – modify the DNA in chickens responsible for producing protein so that it produces a different type of protein (interferon beta).
So, how exactly did they design these magical eggs?
The geniuses behind the golden eggs are researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, led by Isao Oishi. A paper published in the journal Scientific Reports back in July lays out how the eggs were made.
First, they extracted cells that would go on to form sperm from cockerel embryos. They then used genome-editing technology to alter the cells' protein-producing DNA so that when the cockerels hit maturity, they would produce human interferon beta instead of the protein usually found in egg whites. These edited sperm cells were reinserted into the embryos, left to hatch, and the cockerels were allowed to mate with wild hens.
The first batch of female offspring was sterile but by the second generation, the females were producing eggs with noticeably cloudier whites and high volumes of interferon beta.
The hens themselves were normal-looking with a similar lifespan to the control chickens and had no obvious health abnormalities.
With time, the eggs should become cheaper but if you want to get your hands on a punnet of golden eggs right now, you will have to shell out around $538,000 to $2,639,000 apiece. This depends on the protein content of each egg. (Quantity ranges from around 30 to 60 milligrams.)
According to an article recently published in The Telegraph, the team is currently working in collaboration with a Japanese reagent maker called Cosmo Bio to test its potential as a commercial product.
"For Interferon-beta protein, we have about 20 hens in-house," Mika Kitahara, a Cosmo Bio spokesperson, told The Telegraph. "So far our hens produce the eggs constantly, just like normal hens."
[H/T: The Telegraph]