Insulin, thyroxine, and biotech: feasible or fantasy?

Tomorrow’s headline: Hospitals Flooded with Patients Suffering Racing Hearts  - Source Traced to Bioengineered Bacteria. Can Experts Reverse the Epidemic Before More Succumb? * * * Today both KF and JW ask about an online...

Tomorrow’s headline: Hospitals Flooded with Patients Suffering Racing Hearts  - Source Traced to Bioengineered Bacteria. Can Experts Reverse the Epidemic Before More Succumb?

* * *

Today both KF and JW ask about an online article do-it-yourself biotech. Is it actually feasible to duplicate big pharma’s success in producing bioengineered insulin and thyroxine in your own laboratory?

For the technically minded, check out the article they refer to at http://www.indiebiotech.com/?p=135.

While I don’t like to say anything is impossible (are not all things possible with God?), I would estimate the odds of successful production of either product in a home laboratory as close to nil. The article author’s description, while fairly detailed, pales in comparison to what would actually be involved. Perhaps a team of motivated, imaginative, unrestricted, well-funded PhD-level biochemists could concoct these proteins in their basement after a decade of research, but as for counting on this option for treating diabetes and hypothyroidism at TEOTWAWKI, I would not even consider it.

The specific deficiencies the article addresses (lack of insulin in diabetes and lack of thyroxine in hypothyroidism) are really quite separate problems. The thyroid issue is far easier to solve, by resorting to animal sources (and if there aren’t enough animal or human sources around, we’re in big trouble). The thyroid issue is also much simpler because the hormone is effective when taken orally, whereas insulin is not absorbable through the GI tract. Animal thyroid works quite well in humans and thyroid pills should be reasonably stable for years (or perhaps decades) to come. Also, if for some reason thyroid hormone cannot be taken orally, it could be injected (as was done in the late 1800s). Thyroid transplants are theoretically possible but with oral replacement therapy readily available, it has not been a necessity.

The insulin situation is a much greater challenge. It is true that insulin is produced biosynthetically. Recombinant DNA technology now allows for the efficient production of human insulin (which is not immunogenic, like bovine or porcine insulin). However, replicating this technology would be prohibitively difficult. Harvesting insulin from animal pancreatic tissue would be problematic enough.

And what if the recombinant DNA-containg E. coli inoculated the GI tract of researchers? If the engineered bacteria became established as the dominant flora and spread to other family members, the secreted hormones could cause devastating effects. Bacteria producing unquantified amounts of levothyroxine within the human colon could easily cause a condition resembling thyroid storm, a potentially fatal condition.

Although I value imaginative solutions to medical problems, I would classify basement lab production of bioengineered hormones as a pipe dream. (Thanks, KF and JW, for asking.)

On the other hand, if SemBioSys wants to share their secrets of transgenic insulin-producing safflower plants with me (genetic freeware?), I’ll be glad to spread the word.

Please read on for comments from the original article. And how about some input from the other professionals on this site?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Featured image: insuline crystals

Did you like this? Share it: