Guard on bull with human genes

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The Independent Online
IN a well-defended Dutch field, protected from animal liberationists by locks, guards and surveillance cameras, is a bull with human genes called Herman and a herd of 23 cattle ready to produce milk containing human protein.

Despite a swirling controversy in the Netherlands, plans are going ahead to test the protein from the cows' milk in infant formula for babies who cannot tolerate dairy produce and for a wide range of other pharmaceutical purposes.

'The genius of this,' said George Hersbach, president and chief executive of the company Gene Pharm that owns Herman, 'is that it is a renewable way of producing pharmaceuticals. What other process can you simply milk every day to produce what you need?'

Herman, who was born in December 1990, is the world's first transgenic bull - meaning that he is carrying a human lactoferrin gene which was injected into his embryo before birth. His female offspring will carry the human gene in their mammary glands and Mr Hersbach hopes they will be the first cows to produce human milk proteins on demand for the pharmaceutical industry when they start lactating in about nine months' time.

The human lactoferrin they are expected to produce works as a natural antibiotic which is effective against gastric infections. Mr Hersbach's hope is that it will help people with weakened immune systems like premature babies, cancer patients and Aids victims, who have little natural resistance to infection.

In Scotland, Pharmaceuticals Proteins Ltd has produced a transgenic sheep called Tracy which gives milk containing a human product that can be used against the lung disease emphysema. But unlike in the Netherlands, there has been no serious outcry about the ethics of breeding transgenic animals in this country.

The gene-splicing technology is proving that instead of using cultures to grow bacteria in a laboratory, large mammals can be bred to make medicines very cheaply. These animals are at the heart of Europe's budding biotechnology industry, which the European Commission believes is central to the future competitiveness of the European Union.

The Dutch society for the prevention of cruelty to animals has been campaigning hard against the production of transgenic animals. One poster portrays a topless woman with udders in place of breasts over the caption: 'Today a cow, tomorrow you]'

The campaign appears to be having an effect. Nutricia, Europe's second largest infant formula manufacturer, admits losing 4 m Dutch guilders ( pounds 1.54 m) as a result of the outcry and has put off plans to put the human protein extracted from the cows' milk into its products.

Environmentalists tend to oppose the sort of genetic manipulation which has resulted in the arrival of a transgenic tomato in Dutch grocery stores, because the long-term consequences are unclear.