Hematech clones prion-free cows

Published 5 January 2007

Breakthrough a major step in fighting mad cow disease; cloned animals shown at least partially immune to infection; Hematech hopes to improve the safety of its pharmaceutical line

Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Hematech may have taken a major step forward in the fight against mad cow disease — not by curing it, but by genetically engineering cows that do not have the proteins, known as prions, that can sometimes malfunction and cause the malady. Hematech, it should be noted, did not go through all this effort because it wants to shift gears from biotechnology and move into cattle ranching. Rather, the company hopes to use the cows’ blood to safely manufacture pharmaceuticals without fear of infection. “This is a seminal research paper,” said Barbara Glenn of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, referring to results recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.”This shows the application of transgenics to improving livestock production and ultimately food production.”

Having cloned cattle without prions (early in the process, the single gene responsible for their manufacture was removed), Hematech is now hard at work detemining whether the gemetically engineered cows are protected from infection from other cows. In one experiment, tissues from one of the animals’ brains were grown in a culture dish and exposed to mad cow prions. They did not propogate, a sign that the tissue was immune. The company is now in the middle of an experiment to see if the same result obtains if mad cow is injected directly into the cow brain when the cow is still using it — a much more definitive test, scientists say. Results will not be available for at least six more months.

-read more in Rick Weiss’s Washington Post report