Uruguay has a ‘flock’ of nine six-month ‘brilliant’ lambs which behave as any other sheep but are really genetically modified and are planned to help with medicine research. They were born in a farm belonging to the Animal Reproduction Institute of Uruguay (Irauy) a non profit organization connected to the Genetically Modified Animals Unit from the Pasteur Institute, a branch in Montevideo of the renowned French scientific organization.
The nine lambs have an incorporated Green fluorescence protein which when exposed to certain ultra-violet conditions the lambs have a luminescence reaction from their skins which makes them easily identifiable as GM.
“Following the development of trans-genesis (generically modified) in animals, science has advanced in the search for alternatives that can be applied to human medicine; for example we already have animals in the world which produce pharmaceutically interesting proteins such as insulin” said Alejo Menchaca the veterinarian founder of Irauy who is head of the research team together with Martina Crispo, who belongs to the Pasteur Institute.
“You chose a gene of certain interest as for example the one responsible for the human growth hormone in humans. You add it to a cow, sheep, goat embryo and the animal incorporates it to its DNA. In the future the calf, lamb or baby-goat is going to produce milk with the growth hormone”, added Menchaca.
Following the milking of the animal, milk is submitted to a complex process by which the protein is isolated and a medicine is elaborated for consumption by humans suffering an endocrinal disease such as shortage or absence of that hormone.
Menchaca then revealed that the world’s best football player Leonel Messi effectively suffered of that disease, and thus he was sent to Spain with only 13 years of age since the Argentine clubs were unable to face such costs.
“Not too far up the road it won’t be necessary for you to be the best player in the world to receive growth hormones” said Menchaca.
Menchaca and Crispo have been working on the project for over two years and are enthusiastic since “there are other examples of high cost medicines that with the milk production of two, three ewes, goats or cows can help human beings overcome specific diseases; potential promises to be revolutionary”.
But the Uruguayan flock of nine GM lambs will not produce insulin or growth hormones in their milk. They are rather more luminous and brilliant: “when exposed to certain ultra-violet conditions the lambs adopt a green fluorescent colour”.
The gene that was incorporated to the ewes’ embryos is responsible for the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in the Aequorea victory jellyfish. Thus almost instantly it is possible to identify the GMs, or not, given their reaction and luminescence of their skin.
“We did not use a protein of medical interest or to help with a particular medicine because we wanted to fine tune the technique. We used the green protein because the colour is easily identifiable in the sheep’s tissues?” underlined Menchaca. He added that this technique which is a kind of ‘bio marker’, making natural processes non invisible, earned the Chemistry Nobel Prize to a US and a Japanese researcher.
“The technique is complex and demands much work and is one of the limiting factors, so despite the global interest and demand it is still a slow process” pointed out Menchaca who anticipated that any further advances ‘could trigger the interest of the pharmaceutical industry”.
“Our focus is generating knowledge, make it public so the scientific community can be informed and help in the long run march to generate tools so humans can live better, but we’re not out in the market to sell technology”.
As to the nine GM lambs they will have a normal sheep’s life closely monitored by researchers.
“They are out in the field as any other sheep, but in better conditions, not the traditional breeding system. They are well looked after, well fed and very much loved”, confessed Menchaca.
But contrary to Dolly the first cloned sheep or Rosita the first Argentine cow which is producing human baby milk, Uruguayan researchers preferred scientific rigour and just give each of them a number.