Bird stem cells created at UW
Research could benefit drug production, endangered species
By JOHN FAUBER
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Oct. 25, 2001
With the University of Wisconsin-Madison fast becoming a Noah's ark of stem cell lines, UW researchers working with chickens and quail said Thursday they have created what are essentially the world's first lines of bird stem cells.

UW Research


Photo/UW
Quails were used by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers to create the world's first line of avian stem cells.


What it Means

The stem cell development could lead to:
Chickens that produce protein-based drugs in the whites of their eggs.
A way to preserve endangered species such as the whooping crane and California condor.
Poultry that are resistant to potentially devastating bird diseases.
Methods to restore other desired genetic traits in commercial poultry.

Quotable

Basically, they (chickens) would become drug factories.

- John Proudman,
researcher, U.S. Department of Agriculture


The feat is being hailed as a breakthrough with several potential benefits, including new methods of producing expensive pharmaceuticals using chicken eggs and helping to preserve endangered species of birds such as the whooping crane.

The development also has the potential to remake the poultry industry.

"It is landmark work," said John Kirby, director of the cell molecular biology program at the University of Arkansas.

No one else has yet claimed to have produced avian stem cell lines, a major stumbling block to using birds for many new medical and commercial purposes, Kirby said.

"What they did is give the necessary tool," he said.

UW is best known for its pioneering work in creating lines of human stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are a type of parent or precursor cell that can form other types of cells that, in turn, go on to make various body tissues and organs. Stem cells can form nerve, blood, muscle and other cells.

Because of their potential to provide replacement tissue and organs, they hold great promise for treatment of diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other diseases.

In 1998, UW researchers were the first scientists to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells.

Lesser known is the university's work in the mid-1990s creating stem cell lines from two types of monkeys, the rhesus macaque and the common marmoset.

In 1994, UW researchers also cultured a line of bovine embryonic stem cells, said Neal First, a UW professor of animal science.

Now, the university has added chickens and quail to its stem cell accomplishments.

Work of husband-and-wife team
The advance is the work of the husband-and-wife team of Alice and Bernard Wentworth. She is a UW research scientist. He is a professor of avian physiology. They have been working on the project for 13 years.

The Wentworths' cells, technically known as blastodermal cells or primordial germ cells, were derived from fertilized bird eggs. They are the avian equivalent of human embryonic stem cells.

In bird species, embryonic development follows a slightly different path than in mammals, but the UW bird embryonic cell lines seem to perform all the tasks that mammalian embryonic stem cells perform, said Alice Wentworth.

In a cell culture, they appear to be immortal, meaning they continue to reproduce indefinitely. In addition, the cells can be coaxed to differentiate into other types of cells that make the primary bird tissues - muscle, nerve, connective tissue and epithelial cells. Epithelial cells form tissues that make up organs such as skin and glands.

"We've made a step forward," Alice Wentworth said. "But I feel very humble about it because we haven't made that greater step."

One of the next major steps will be to use the stem cell lines to create transgenic birds, animals that have genetic material from other animals inserted into their embryos.

That would allow for the production of protein-based drugs that can be made in the albumen of eggs. The albumen is the protein-rich white of an egg.

Since many pharmaceuticals are protein-based, chicken eggs could be an ideal source for producing those complex chemicals.

"Basically, they (chickens) would become drug factories," said John Proudman, a research physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "If you can do it with a chicken that lays 280 eggs a year, that's a big boon."

Huge drug potential
The number of potential drugs that could be produced by transgenic chickens are numerous, including antibodies, clotting factor drugs used by hemophiliacs, growth hormones, improved flu vaccines and interferon, a protein that inhibits viral activity.

"It (the Wentworths' work) is a big deal," Proudman said. "There has been no successful way of producing transgenic birds, yet.

In addition to pharmaceutical companies, the poultry industry also may have several uses for bird stem cells.

They could be used to create transgenic chickens that are resistant to two potentially devastating bird diseases, avian influenza and Newcastle's disease.

But one of the most intriguing possibilities is using the cells to preserve endangered species of birds.

Stem cell lines from threatened bird species could be developed and frozen for future use.

Another possibility would be to create embryos that would be implanted in surrogate birds from a different species, but one that had a similar egg size and incubation period, said Bernard Wentworth.

"We should be preserving the whooping crane, the California condor and the kiwi and all the endangered birds," he said.

Just like the human stem cell lines developed at UW, the UW avian stem cell lines have been patented by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The foundation licenses technology developed by UW researchers.


Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 26, 2001.


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