Genetic engineering to the rescue

That we would benefit from unraveling the mystery of the gene was evident even before Watson and Crick constructed the ‘Double Helix.’ Several of the applications of this technology in healthcare delivery have been contentious, yet research in the field continues unabated. While efforts at resolving the issues in contention continue in ethical, academic, and political circles, among others, many other potentially, and equally valuable but not controversial contributions of genetic engineering towards improving healthcare delivery go unnoticed by the public, who ironically, should know about them.

Furthermore, that the prevalence of overweight and obesity is of epidemic proportions in many countries, developed or otherwise, which is contributory, to a significant extent, to the equally alarming increase in the prevalence of diabetes, even among children, is increasingly, known, is not in doubt. What is not so well known is the shortage of insulin, which many individuals that have diabetes need to stay alive and well, which makes the recent announcement by a Canadian biotechnology firm based in Calgary that it could develop commercially viable insulin in a genetically modified safflower, important.

The firm, SemBioSys still has to test the product, which has shown promise in laboratory experiments, on humans hence it might take some time for the insulin, to reach the market. However, with the prevalence of diabetes in Canada alone expected to double to 2.7 million by 2010, the plant-based insulin, which would be about 40% less costly than current insulin, would not only have an enormous market in the country, but indeed, worldwide, when it does. Incidentally, another Canadian company this time based in Montreal, MethylGene Inc. has confirmed that its enzyme-inhibitor cancer treatment also works for diabetes, the firm now establishing treatment’s long-term safety and initiating clinical trials.

Recently also, a study published in the Journal of Burn Care and Research1, indicates that a patient’s test-tube grown, genetically modified skin cells, could give us the next generation of artificial skin. Cincinnati scientists have engineered bacteria-resistant skin cells in the laboratory, animal testing in progress, the artificial skin able to sweat, tan, and ward off infection, the anticipated results. To have such cultured skin akin to normal skin would be a major breakthrough in the management of a variety of skin conditions, including burns, which besides cosmetics, if severe, could predispose affected persons to life-threatening dehydration and infections. Skin grafts currently help but individuals with severe burns usually do not have enough healthy skin to spare for grafting.

Efforts at producing artificial skin products have been ongoing for many years, with products such as those produced from scaffolds of collagen, are veritable lifesavers, helping the production of the dermis, which normally does not regenerate, the results of placing grafted epidermis over which could be quite efficacious in burns management. In recent times, skin cells seeded into the collagen scaffolds have also greatly improved the growth of skin cells obviating the need for grafting the epidermis, sheets of epidermis grown in collagen scaffold transplanted instead. These genetically modified cells also produce high antibacterial protein levels hence effectively combat infections, a major problem with the treatment of burns with artificial-skin products that typically necessitate the use of antibacterial bandages.


1. Smiley, Andrea K. MS; Gardner, Jason BS; Klingenberg, Jennifer M. BS; Neely, Alice N. PhD; Supp, Dorothy M. PhD, Expression of Human Beta Defensin 4 in Genetically Modified Keratinocytes Enhances Antimicrobial Activity. Journal of Burn Care & Research. 28(1):127-132, January/February 2007.