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  • First GM camels to be engineered for drug production

[CAIRO] Researchers in Dubai hope to create the first genetically modified (GM) camels capable of producing pharmaceutical proteins in their milk,which can then be processed to manufacture cheaper drugs for the region.

The project aims to slash the prices of life-saving drugs — including insulin, and clotting factors for treating haemophilia — in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Nisar Wani, head of the Reproductive Biology Laboratory at Dubai's Camel Reproduction Center, in the United Arab Emirates.

The cost of camel milk in the region is comparable to that of cow's milk, but the former is more suited to local climates, said Wani. Camels are highly resistant to disease, easier to maintain in the region's arid climate, and are more efficient in converting food [into body mass] than cows.

"We are establishing camel cells modified with exogenous [foreign] DNA, for use in producing transgenic cloned animals, or GM camels," Wani told SciDev.Net. "Hopefully we will transfer camel transgenic embryos to surrogate mothers for the first time later this year."

Wani said he was unable to pinpoint when the first transgenic animal would be born, as the calving rate for cloned embryos was only five per cent, and "this rate gets even smaller when transgenic cells are used".

"We have crossed some critical barriers but still need to do a lot of work to reach the final destination," he added.

"Producing a transgenic animal will bring the Emirates to the top of the international research field," Serge Muyldermans, head of the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at Vrije University Brussel, in Belgium, told SciDev.Net.* "However, so far they have just been repeating what others are doing with goats and cattle."

"Cows would be better producers of transgenic protein as they produce more milk," Muyldermans said. "But as camels can be kept in arid areas and are used to living under harsh conditions, they might be better suited to the Middle East."

The Reproductive Biology Laboratory was established in Dubai in 2003, to study the reproductive techniques in species from the region, particularly camels.

"[Previously] there was little or no literature available on assisted reproductive techniques in camels, so we had to standardise all the basic techniques one by one," explained Wani. "Finally, in 2009, we produced the first cloned camel calf — named Injaz — and thereafter produced many more."

The lab's researchers have established a cell bank from 'elite' camels, which excel in milk production and adapting to drought and hot weather, and now plan to clone these animals.   

The researchers are also setting up a cell bank for the region's other critically endangered species.

*This article was updated on 26 September 2012 to say that Vrije University Brussel is in Belgium, not the Netherlands as previously stated.

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