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February 14, 1997 - Issue Index

Altered rabbit milk can help cure disease
By David Pesci (February 14, 1997)

The medicinal values of rabbit milk have not received much attention in the scientific community. But that is about to change thanks to a partnership between a UConn researcher and a Dutch pharmaceutical company.

Jerry Yang, an associate professor in the Department of Animal Science, has developed a transgenic rabbit that will produce a specialized variety of genetically altered milk. The milk will be extracted by the Dutch company Pharming and used to help people who have a debilitating disorder known as Pompe's disease.

Pompe's disease affects the musculoskeletal system. People with the disease have problems converting glycogen to glucose in their muscles. Glucose serves as the energy source for muscle function. It is believed that by injecting a functional form of this enzyme into individuals suffering from Pompe's disease, the effects of the condition can be reduced or eliminated. Unfortunately, the supply of the enzyme is severely limited.

But Yang's transgenic rabbit will change this. Pharming provided Yang with an alpha-glucosidase gene which Yang was able to implant in a rabbit genome through a microinjection process. The result is a female rabbit that produces about one gram of the enzyme per liter of milk. Rabbits were chosen because they breed quickly, mature quickly and are easy to care for.

Yang's rabbit is one of a number of animals Pharming will use. The company plans to have its rabbit-milking facility on line in about two years. It expects to have about 200 rabbits which will be able to produce enough alpha-glucosidase for the world's Pompe's disease sufferers.

"This is an excellent example of how biotechnology can dramatically improve people's lives," Yang said. "It is also a tremendous opportunity for the University because it puts us at the forefront of transgenic research."

Yang also has been collaborating with Genzyme Transgenics Corp. of Framingham, Mass., and PPL Therapeutics in Edinburgh, Scotland, to produce transgenic rabbits with other genetic constructs.

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