In this second of three programmes, Imperial College Research Fellow Olivia Judson and food critic Giles Coren investigate several more biotechnological creations on Channel 4’s virtual Animal Farm (originally broadcast on 26th March 2007; TRILT identifier 0062CC6E). Development discussed in this episode include tissue engineering – used here to make a replica of Giles Coren’s nose – and footage on transgenic cows, sheep and tobacco plants. As the programme’s guides meet these animals and their creators, they not only elborate some of the themes from Episode 1, but also draw out some additional ethical issues surrounding the latest uses of techniques of genetic modification on the “pharmaceutical farm” (00:47:08).
In particular they meet a herd of cloned, transgenic cows “built…from the ground up, to help cure some of the most dangerous diseases on the planet” (00:03:29), including anthrax and the currently incurable Ebola. These cows have a series of gene-knockouts (that is, genes of their own which have been engineered to stop normal expression) but also, more significantly in this context, carry a human ‘microchromosome’ (HAC), which “has the human antibody gene in it” (00:03:48). The purpose of this modification is to mass-produce human antibodies, which thanks to the HAC, can be harvested in large quanities by filtering the cows’ blood. According to the programme this is the only way to achieve this short of repeately innoculating humans, but, as Olivia says, “we can’t go round infecting people with antrax” (00:05:12).
In the course of the programme Olivia also encounters, what are described as, ” the sheep that is just a little bit human” (00:25:27). In what is a very technical, though understandable, section of the programme, Prof. Esmail Zanjani describes how human adult stem cells can be injected into the embryo of a sheep while in the womb, such that “the lamb, when born, will contain sheep and human cells” (00:28:04). This is termed a process of ‘humanisation’. Prof. Zanjani is, however, only really interested in the sheep’s organs, as opposed to creating “a strange new hybrid” (00:29:52), as a result of cell fusion – something that the programme identifies as one of the risks of this technique. He is interested in growing “human parts inside animals” (00:25:01), for the purposes of patient specific organ transplantation. As he says, these sheep contain, for example, livers which are “at least 10 to 15 percent made up of the liver cells derived from that patient” (00:29:04).
A third transgenic organism featured in the show is a variety of 10ft, transgenic tobacco, engineered to ‘manufacture’ cyanovirin. This chemical, produced by a gene found only in a specific type of blue-green alge, is vital in the global battle against HIV-AIDS. This tobbaco plant’s creators intend the cyanovirin to be used for an HIV barrier cream, which, since they are harvesting the seeds as well as the leaves for global supply, could – in theory – be made in, and by, any country in the world.
Aside from further discussion of the ethical issues identified in episode 1 (for example, the differential treatment – and assesment – of plant and animal transgenesis), episode 2 is an excellent resource for addressing questions of whether transgenics blurs, or even, breaks down species barriers in a morally significant way. This can be broken down into questions around:
- The ethical treatment of experimental animals
Each of these issues is explored in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post (pdf).
All timings given here are approximate, and correspond to quote timings on the ERA recording of Animal Farm – Part 2 of 3, CH4 2100-2200pm, 26 March 2007.