The Transgenic Revolution

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The Transgenic Revolution

The dreams of genetic engineering have multiplied faster than the technical reality could keep up over the years. Why? Because it is a complex multi-stage process to go from understanding the genes in living organisms to actually solving real-world problems with genetic engineering. And, problems can occur anywhere along the way.

Simply put, there are four major hurdles that have to be overcome:

  • The first is to read the DNA code.
  • The second is to figure out what the code means in terms of the proteins produced and the RNA used in the protein production process.
  • The third step is to rewrite the code or stop the functioning of the code.
  • The fourth step is to manufacture and deliver products of the rewritten or inhibited code where they are needed.

Sometimes, we can simply short-circuit the process using a promising technique called “RNA interference,” which we’ve discussed in prior issues. Other times we can insert corrected genes into the beneficiary’s own cells and thereby reprogram the cells using a technique called “gene therapy.”

However, we usually have to find an effective way to mass-produce the new gene products in what we call “transgenic bio-factories,” and then insert those products into the body. These bio-factories are populations of plants, animals, or bacteria into which foreign genes have been introduced. The process has been known for at least 20 years, but it’s only now getting to the point of commercial significance.

So, even after we’ve proved that a biotech product can deliver benefits, and we know how to deliver it safely, we’re almost always faced with one last big question: Can we produce these little miracles in sufficient quantities to make a difference in the real world?

Recent advances seem to say that the answer is almost always: “Yes, we can.” Or, at the very least, we’ll be able to do it fairly soon.

The summer of 2006 marked the 10th anniversary of the cloning of the famous sheep named Dolly, as noted in an article in The Herald.1 Most of us have forgotten what the point of creating Dolly was in the first place. Dolly was intended to be the first of many animals that were used to “pharm” drugs that would cure cancer, hemophilia, and cystic fibrosis. “Pharm” in this case refers to farming pharmaceuticals.

The concept is simple: Once a useful genetic modification has been made, it can be inserted into a farm animal, which will then mass-produce it...

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