Chicken Eggs Offer Better Way to Produce Important Drugs

Release Date:
NIGMS Communications Office

In recent years, a new class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies has become an important treatment for cancer and other illnesses. Therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, such as the breast cancer therapy Herceptin®, work the same way natural antibodies work: They identify and attach to receptors on cell surfaces to block unhealthy molecular interactions or to alert other cells in the immune system to launch an attack. Currently, monoclonal antibody drugs are manufactured by inserting the genes encoding these proteins into cultured animal cells. But the high cost of installing and operating cell-culture production facilities has prompted scientists to look for a better method.

With funding from a small business innovation grant, Lei Zhu of Origen Therapeutics in Burlingame, California, figured out how to make monoclonal antibody drugs in chicken eggs. She and her coworkers inserted genetic instructions into the chicken genome, directing the production of antibodies in egg whites. Extracting the protein drugs was straightforward and efficient, and laboratory tests showed that the antibodies were even more effective at killing cancer cells than were antibodies made by traditional means.

This work is a technical milestone that could ease the development of other therapeutic antibodies. In addition to the 17 approved antibodies currently marketed as medicines to treat cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease, dozens more are currently in the development pipeline. Streamlined approaches to make therapeutic monoclonal antibodies efficiently and economically may mean less expensive—and potentially more effective—medicines in the not-too-distant future.

Writer: Alison Davis, Science Writing Contractor