Animal welfare concerns at biotech meet

By PHIL MAGERS  |  Sept. 24, 2002 at 7:32 PM
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DALLAS, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Scientists using genetically engineered animals to make breakthroughs in medicine and other fields were warned Tuesday they must also convince the public that they are treating the animals in a humane way.

Experts on ethics and animal behavior raised the concern at a conference called "Biotech in the Barnyard: Implications of Genetically Engineered Animals," sponsored by the non-profit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Transgenic cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits have been given an extra gene through genetic engineering during the past 20 years. They were used to produce everything from promising new vaccines to silk so strong it can withstand a bullet.

Dr. William Velander, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a pioneer in genetic engineering, explained to about 150 participants how his research with transgenic pigs has produced a protein that shows great promise in the treatment of hemophilia.

The protein produced through milk of the transgenic sow is less expensive and more abundant that it could be produced through a regular stainless steel bioreactor.

"For example, it is estimated that the milk from only several hundred happy and healthy transgenic pigs could satisfy the worldwide clinical demand for hemophilia A or B," he said.

Velander showed slide pictures of the swine at his laboratory to show that the pigs are well cared for. Later in the program others on the panel addressed the animal welfare issues that arise in a discussion of transgenic animals.

Dr. Joy Mench, a professor of animal science at the University of California-Davis, pointed to a recent survey that found the general public more accepting of biotechnology in the production of crops than it was with animals.

Dr. Gary Comstock, director of the Research Ethics Program at North Carolina State University, said the treatment of the transgenic animals has improved in recent years.

"All of us want to minimize the suffering of the animal," he said. "No one who is involved in this type of research wants animals that would be able to produce the desired pharmaceutical but live a kind of miserable life in the process."

Velander said his animals are treated well.

"These animals are treated better than 99 percent of the population of humans on the Earth right now as research animals," he said. "We have intense regulation by USDA inspectors as well as campus animal care committees."

The issues are critical as a number of public policy decisions must be made in the next few years on regulation of clones and transgenic animals. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release its first safety standards for clones next year and then issue guidelines for transgenic animals in 2004.

Some animal-rights organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, have accused transgenic researchers of cruelty in experiments.

In a report issued in February, PETA accused one researcher, Gerald Schatten at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center, of torturing rhesus macaques for research purposes in trying to create identical and transgenic monkeys.

"Dr. Shatten obtains the sperm for his experiments through the process of penile electro-ejaculation, which can burn the animals' genitalia. ... Records show that one monkey was subjected to electro-ejaculation on at least 241 separate occasions," PETA said.

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