Transforming Chickens to Lay ‘Golden’ Eggs

Linda Benedict  |  10/21/2004 9:43:05 PM

Every once in a while someone comes along who can build a better mousetrap. And at the LSU AgCenter, that person is Richard Cooper, professor in the Department of Veterinary Science who’s come up with a way to get chickens to lay eggs containing human proteins.

These chickens are the reason a new biotechnology company that will manufacture a precursor of insulin is located in an LSU AgCenter laboratory on the Baton Rouge campus. Beginning in 2004, this company, TransGenRx, appears likely to earn millions of dollars in annual sales with a potential for spin-off companies that will produce more pharmaceuticals at a fraction of the cost of conventional methods.

Cooper didn’t start his scientific career thinking his claim to fame would be chickens. Fresh from earning a Ph.D. in medical microbiology at the University of Georgia, he came to the LSU AgCenter in 1990 to make channel catfish more disease-resistant.

He’d been fascinated by fish diseases since his teen years in Jackson, Miss., when he managed to kill a thousand dollars’ worth of saltwater fish at his dad’s new pet store.

“I wanted to fix the problem and find out what caused it,” Cooper said.

That same curiosity led him to question why it was so difficult to insert disease-resistant genes into catfish. At that time the technology guaranteed less than a 1 percent success rate. The other 99 percent of the catfish that had undergone the gene-altering procedure did not stay transgenic.

“I didn’t like the odds,” Cooper said.

Over the next few years, he developed techniques that made for a better equation. The LSU AgCenter team was the first to put in a gene for disease resistance in catfish. Now, 50 percent to 80 percent of the offspring of genetically altered catfish are disease-resistant.

Not to give away any patented secrets, but his techniques, in extremely simple terms, involve three things. First, he shortened the sequence of the piece of DNA that’s inserted into the organism by nearly 80 percent. This made transformation happen faster.

Second, he inserted the foreign DNA into the animal’s DNA sequence in a different manner than had ever been done before.

Third, he made sure the transporters of the foreign DNA, called “vectors,” self-destructed once they’d done their job. This is crucial for stability, allowing the desired traits to be passed on to the offspring. Otherwise, the foreign DNA could move and get out of sequence, and the alteration would be lost.

Meanwhile, a sequence of chance events happened in Cooper’s life that moved him from fish tanks to chicken coops.

He was at a crossroad about where to go with the transgenic technology used with the fish, from a commercial viewpoint. Federal law will not allow transgenic catfish to be grown commercially because of concerns that they will escape into the wild. The only way the business of growing transgenic, disease-resistant catfish could develop is if the catfish were sterile. No one has yet found a way to make catfish sterile.

“Mother Nature has made this difficult,” said Fred Enright, chair of the Department of Veterinary Science.

Cooper happened to be in Paula Jacobi’s office when she received a phone call from a biochemist-turned-businessman, Bill Fioretti of Dallas, Texas. Jacobi is in charge of intellectual properties for the LSU AgCenter and works with licensing agreements.

During the course of the conversation, Jacobi managed to connect Fioretti, the man with the business sense, with Cooper, the scientist behind the technology. Together, they hatched a plan to try to make insulin with transgenic chickens.

“You can’t manipulate a chicken egg the way you can a fish egg,” Cooper said of the new challenge.

But the change in animals provided him an opportunity to show his stuff. And Cooper and the AgCenter have since patented more technology having to do with inserting genes in chickens. Fioretti helped start a new company, now called TransGenRx, to take advantage of Cooper’s wizardry.

“Dr. Cooper solves puzzles,” Fioretti said of his new associate.

In the world of biotech start-up companies, the race is on to produce human proteins, such as insulin, in a cost-effective manner. So far, TransGenRx, which is expected to bring hundreds of high-paying jobs to Baton Rouge, is ahead of the competition.

“At least five other companies are trying to do what we are,” Cooper said. “But we have a solid intellectual property base.”

At this writing, TransGenRx is expected to produce 30 kilograms of proinsulin in 2004, which could translate into $30 million to $50 million in sales.

“This is an example of what supporting higher education can do for a state like Louisiana,” said Chancellor Bill Richardson. “The LSU AgCenter plans to be the impetus for more start-up companies.”

Meanwhile, Cooper has been approached by the U.S. Army to investigate the production of vaccines to fight bioterrorism.

Other products being looked at for future ventures include drugs to treat breast cancer, specialty drugs for rare diseases that drug companies heretofore have not been able to develop because of high costs, and diagnostic tests for cancer.

Linda Foster Benedict

(This article was published in the fall 2003 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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