Molecular biologist Angelika Schnieke produces genetically modified animals, mainly pigs, for biomedical research: animal models of human diseases, like cancer, and also for xenotransplantation, the transplantation of living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another. In the past, she worked on the manufacture of pharmaceutical products in livestock milk, but she is known for one extraordinary scientific achievement: she is the mother of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first animal to be cloned from an adult cell. Schnieke, born in Oberhausen (Germany) in 1956, is now Dean of Life Sciences in the Technical University of Munich.
Why to produce transgenic pigs for biomedical research?
At the moment you have the mouse model and then you go from the mouse straight to human. You have cancer like pancreas cancer which is deadly, so if you go to the doctor and you get a diagnosis, you might have six months to live. So what you need is early diagnosis. And to develop this early diagnosis (from blood samples or using particular molecular imaging technologies) you can start developing it in the mouse, but you have to test it. The pig would be an easy animal in between. And also you can do a lot more in a single animal, because the mouse is so small that you need a lot of animals. With pigs, you can follow one animal from very early stages, get blood samples, test if you already have a biomarker for diagnosis and then go to the next stage and just follow it through.
In the past you also produced drugs in large transgenic animals.
I used to do that when I was working in Scotland [between 1992 and 2003 she worked with the biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics in Edinburgh], but I don’t do this here now. We made a lot of different pharmaceutical products in transgenic animals.
And now you are not interested in this line of research.
No, because the market has changed and most of the products are now done in cell cultures. At the time when we worked on it, it was not clear if cell cultures could ever produce enough of recombinant proteins, so you can treat all the patients. And now the cell cultures have increased, have become more efficient. So it is not clear if the animal is really a good choice anymore.
So there are a lot of disadvantages of producing drugs in transgenic animals.
There are not many companies working on that anymore.
When xenotransplantation will be a reality?
Probably, within a few years you will have transplantation of tissues like islets [the regions of the pancreas that produce insulin]. There are a lot of people who are diabetic and you can use porcine islets which you transplant. So this is relatively simple because it is tissue that does not have its own blood supply. This type of tissue transplantation from pig into human could become a reality relatively soon. The full organ transplant will take a little bit longer, probably. There is a saying: xenotransplantation is 10 years away and always will be. But the hope is that maybe a pig’s organ is not transplanted for life but only long enough to survive until you get a human organ. But tissues for transplantation will become a reality very soon. If you look at the number of diabetics, that will also be a very good advantage.
Tissues from transgenic pigs?
From either transgenic or maybe from non-transgenic animals, both might work. If you have tissues which don’t have blood vessels they don’t have problems.
Why does society need xenotransplantation?
We have a large shortage of organs. We have people on waiting lists for heart transplants, particularly for kidney transplants and also islets of pancreas. Both islets and kidneys have to do with the epidemic in diabetes and that is why the number of kidney transplants is going up. In Germany very few people will give her organs away. There is even a discussion to change the law so you don’t have to opt in to become a donor. So everybody principally is a donor unless you specifically say you don’t want to be a donor. As long as we don’t have enough organs, people will always die.
Some weeks ago, The Guardian wrote: “There’s no choice: we must grow GM crops now”. Do you think that we must also generate disease resistant GM animals?
Yes. Something that is beneficial for the animal that would be a great thing to do. And with global warming, the threats of particular diseases which right now are only in Africa, they will soon become a problem for us. African swine fever is now moving all the way through Russia and Poland. And Poland is not very far away from the rest of Europe. So if we could make animals which are resistant to African swine fever that would be a fantastic idea. And people are working on making chickens resistant to bird flu. You will save the animals and you will save also a very important food source.
Do you understand concerns about transgenic products in the society?
Yes, you can understand. From the outside it is very difficult to understand the way we do genetic manipulation. People don’t understand that system very well.