Pharm Animals

Pharmaceutical research has moved from the sterile walls of the laboratory to the mud and straw of the barnyard. Scientists are genetically engineering cows and pigs to grow life-saving drugs right in their own bodies. The genetically altered livestock are nicknamed "pharm" animals. Here's how the genetic technology works. Many proteins have medicinal functions, such as insulin and human growth hormone. Scientists can now identify which section of the DNA molecule contains the code for some of these proteins. If they cut out that section of human DNA and graft it into the DNA of an-other animal, it will function there exactly as it does in humans: directing the production of the same protein. Scientists first grafted human DNA into tiny bacteria. It worked so well that pharmaceutical companies now cultivate huge vats of genetically altered bacteria to grow human proteins for medicinal purposes. But cultivating bacteria is not easy: The vats must be monitored as carefully as a hospital intensive care unit. Looking for an easier way, scientists began splicing human DNA into larger animals, which don't need such close monitoring. The medicinal products are extracted from the animal's blood or milk. Today pigs have been genetically engineered to produce human hemoglobin, used for blood transfusions. Goats are engineered to produce an anti-clotting protein, used for heart-attack patients. Genetically altered sheep produce a human protein for treating emphysema. And cows are producing lactoferrin, the protein in human breast milk that helps babies fight infections. Drug companies hope to use it against cancer and AIDS. The engineered animals are called "transgenic" because they carry transferred genes from humans. They are literally live, four-legged drug factories. Transgenic products will appear on medicine shelves in five to ten years. But already some people are drawing grand philosophical conclusions from the technology. A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says the capacity to splice human genes into animals proves that humans are merely part of the animal world—nothing more. But this is nonsense. The fact that a tiny strand of human DNA can function in an animal tells us nothing about our metaphysical status. Humans are much more than DNA. The essential mark of humanity is the image of God. DNA is an important molecule, of course—governing heredity and development. But we are not made in the image of a strand of chemicals. We are made to reflect the character of Bob Himself. Using farm animals for pharmaceuticals may well produce the next generation of wonder drugs. But in our secular age, it could also foster a genetic reductionism that reduces human beings to a read-out of their genetic code. As Christians we need to be ready to give an interpretation of genetic technology that preserves a biblical view of human dignity. We may share genes with farm animals, but much more important, we share the image of the God Who made us.


Chuck Colson



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