Each year, malaria is responsible for the deaths of more than 650,000 people worldwide. In Kenya, where I live, the disease ranks as the number one cause of death among children, killing tens of thousands annually. Unlike other infectious diseases, malaria is both preventable and treatable — but in Kenya, like many other parts of the world where the disease runs rampant, lack of education, funding, health services, and infrastructure leave the population vulnerable to infection.
The statistics are grim, despite ongoing global efforts to eradicate the disease. But new and innovative approaches are being developed all the time, from breakthroughs in vaccine research to experiments using lasers to zap disease-carrying mosquitos before they infect humans.
But, according to one researcher, the key to combating the disease lies elsewhere: in the milk of some very special goats.
Mark Westhusin, a professor of veterinary medicine and biological science at Texas A&M University, is involved in a project that aims to genetically modify goats so that the animals produce anti-malarial vaccines in their milk. These so-called “pharm animals” could in theory produce vast amounts of the vaccine at a fraction of the current cost.
“There is tremendous potential to produce malaria vaccines and other types of medicines, especially for Third World countries,” Westhusin told Fast Company’s Ben Schiller. “If you produce these proteins in goats and other transgenic animals, it’s way more efficient, and cheaper, than the old-fashioned ways.”
Currently, the vaccine present in the goats’ milk must be isolated and purified before being injected. But, Westhusin says, with further research and development, the goats could eventually produce a drinkable vaccine — perhaps within ten years.
The implications of this pharmacological innovation are stunning — imagine the convenience, efficacy, and cost effectiveness of relying on goats’ milk to inoculate a population in place of traditional methods. In a rural village, where mosquito nets are few and far between, and health services even scarcer, a pharm animal could save countless lives.
As scholar Ned Hettinger argues, “There exists a significant burden of justification against the production of such monstrous transformations of living beings into mechanical, artificial modes of existence. Prima facie, biotechnology should not be used to impoverish creatures, to strip away their capacities, or to diminish the richness of their lives.”
Westhusin, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give credence to the position of animal rights proponents. Endeavors such as developing vaccine-producing goats are “great,” he says, “but they run up against a lot of hurdles. One of the first are the animal welfare groups who jump on top of this, and say we shouldn’t be using animals for anything. You know, blah, blah, blah.”
Westhusin may dismiss the concerns of the activists as “blah blah blah,” but critics of bioengineering are by no means a small minority, and it is safe to assume that technological advancements involving transgenic animals will continue to be a source of controversy.
From a scientific standpoint, though, the importance of Westhusin’s work can’t be overstated. The devastating effects of malaria could, theoretically, be eradicated during our lifetime – and it will be difficult to convince health practitioners to prioritize the welfare of kids over children.
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