The frightening future of pharming

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 December, 2004, 12:00am

Typically, I avoid biotech like stale snake soup. I think objects should be made from titanium rather than tissue that spurts fluid in your eye if you so much as squeeze. The field is just so icky and capricious - too much a case of 'let's splice this with this and hope for the best'.

That said, the monstrous messiness of biotech fascinates me. So this week Technopedia will tramp from the office to the laboratory and dissect an intriguing biotech term which melds the pharmacy with the farm: 'pharming'.

Pharming invokes the spectre of one of the most famous moments in sci-fi literature: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy scene where a cow presented as the dish of the day invites diners to choose a part of its body for consumption. The cow reaches over, puts its plump hoof on the hero's shoulder and extols the deliciousness of its liver. After congratulating the diners on their eventual choice (four rare steaks), the cow announces: 'I'll just nip off and shoot myself.'

Aside from those digital slaves brashly called bots, entities so suicidally obliging do not exist yet. But organisms can be transformed into living medicine factories, thanks to the power of pharming: the use of genetically messed-around livestock and plants to produce cheap drugs.

The usual gut reaction to this strange strain of science is revulsion. Pharming appears to confirm our species' capacity for rapacity - I await the day the new economy spawns a website called

In the biotech future, as the gene shuffling becomes ever more involved, expect the emergence of dodgy livestock that offers leaner meat, more flavour, more wool, more charisma. Expect apples implanted with genes from oranges, so that they flood us with vitamin C.

At your child's appointment for a routine jab, the doctor waves a banana bred to contain the relevant vaccine and tells you to ring in the morning after your treasure has digested it.

If the child has a bug, he may be fed milk infused with antibiotics. Pharming could make the needle and the pill redundant.

That sounds like hype. But bear in mind we already extract human growth hormones from cadavers and insulin from slaughtered pigs.

Because of the 'phuss', pharming is a secretive business. Nonetheless, pharmed drugs are on the increase, prompting bureaucrats to dither and deliberate about their potential. Earlier this year, the regulators at the European Medicines Agency agreed to consider a drug called Atryn: a therapeutic protein derived from the milk of a genetically modified goat.

Other animals that science has conscripted in the battle to stop humans becoming sick and decrepit include cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits and mice.

A poll conducted in the United States last year by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 81 per cent of interviewees supported the use of transgenic crops to manufacture affordable drugs. But only 49 per cent backed the use of transgenic animals to make medicines.

Exploiting organisms with some kind of consciousness apparently gives us the creeps - with justification perhaps. When injected into a fertilised egg, transgenic DNA could disrupt an animal's 'normal gene function'. The disruption could trigger several consequences ranging from birth defects to cancer, arthritis and diabetes. That is too high a price to pay for the sake of cheap medicine.

Confused by computer jargon? E-mail with your questions