Genetically engineered goats could be the key to mass-producing cancer drugs

Luke Dormehl

Could the answer to mass-producing cancer drugs be … genetically modified goats? It might sound kind of crazy, but upon closer inspection, it actually makes a whole lot of sense. The drugs in question, therapeutic mAbs (aka monoclonal antibodies), are used in the treatment of human diseases including cancer. They are commonly produced in large bioreactors using cultured cells from mammals. But this process is extremely expensive, which in turn raises the cost for customers who may desperately need the drugs.

An international team of researchers led by New Zealand-based Goetz Laible, a senior animal scientist at the University of Auckland, is setting out to make these drugs in a different way — by using genetically engineered goats to produce them in their milk.

“To generate goats that are capable of producing the mAb in their milk, we first introduced the genes holding the information for the mAb into the genome of goat cells,” Laible told Digital Trends. “From such goat cells, live goats were generated using the cloning technology that was developed to generate the sheep Dolly. With these additional genes in their genomes, the goats were able to produce the antibody in their milk — but were otherwise normal, healthy animals.”

Goetz and his goats. Goetz Laible

This is not the first time that genetically engineered goats have been used as unlikely manufacturing vessels in the name of science. In 2012, scientists tested the idea of using goats for the production of spider silk in large quantities.

Laible said that this latest study validates the idea that goats could serve as an “excellent platform” for large-scale production of cancer-treatment drugs at a lower cost. In the process, it could help make the drugs, which are used for the treatment of a wide range of human diseases, available more widely. It may also have additional benefits.

“The scale of production is essentially fixed [at present due to ] the size of the bioreactor for mammalian cell cultures, and scaling of production volumes is very limited,” he said. “By contrast, an animal production platform is very flexible. Production volumes can be readily scaled by simply increasing or decreasing the number of production animals.”

The team now plans to undertake additional testing to further demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of anti-cancer treatments manufactured using goats.

A paper describing the research is available to read via the biology preprint server bioRxix.