AgResearch health focus in GM work

The country's largest science company is entering the business of human health and medicine.

AgResearch scientists are working with commercial drug companies to develop genetically modified medicines, considering breast cancer drug Hercepton, Interferon, which slows the onset of multiple sclerosis, and human lactoferrin.

The company's applied biotechnologies manager, Jimmy Suttie, said AgResearch had been involved in genetic modification (GM) technology for eight years and viewed biopharming, or the production of pharmaceutical proteins in milk, as a suitable application given widely-used drugs were coming off patent in the next three years.

The work was in partnership with pharmaceutical companies to develop health supplements and medicines.

Farmers could one day become niche suppliers of milk carrying selected GM proteins.

Dr Suttie told a media open day at AgResearch's Ruakura campus in Hamilton recently that access to healthy, disease-free cows and GM technology gave New Zealand an opportunity to tap into a growing market.

Dairy cows were ideal for naturally growing GM proteins.

There were plenty of them, they produced large volumes of milk cheaply and New Zealand scientists had extensive knowledge of the animals.

Dr Suttie said the European Union recently approved its first GM medicine, Atryn, an anti-blood clotting medicine produced in the United States from 100 GM goats.

AgResearch has 109 transgenic cattle on its 45ha containment farm at Ruakura but was limited to 200.

Scientists there had successfully bred cows that produced human myelin protein in their milk.

Reproductive technologies manager Vish Vishwanath said the company had already bred calves carrying an extra casein protein, an achievement it was the first in the world to accomplish and designed to verify the research of the last eight years.

Asked if the public was ready for GM, Dr Suttie said more than 20 countries had this year planted over 100 million hectares of GM corn, soy, canola and cotton.

"If the world is not ready for GM, that figure flies in the face of that."

New Zealand ran the risk of being left behind by other countries and missing out on new opportunities the research provided.

AgResearch was partnering other companies and on the human lactoferrin work was working with Pharming, a Dutch-United States company.

He estimated it could take another five years to produce the right protein.


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