Professor Helen Sang

Professor Helen Sang

Professor Helen Sang, Head of Division of Developmental Biology at The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, has genetically modified chickens to lay eggs that can be used to treat diseases.

When I started at the Roslin Institute, one of the first ideas we had was that if you could genetically modify hens to create other proteins in their eggs, it would be a really useful way of producing valuable proteins. You could then collect the eggs, purify the proteins out of the egg white and use them for human therapies, such as treatments for cancer and inflammation. This was in the 1980s, when the technology wasn’t keeping up with the ideas. But now we have genome engineering technology that is making it much easier to insert genes into chickens’ DNA that direct new proteins to be produced alongside the chicken egg white proteins.

Our most recent advance from the work with Dr Lissa Herron (now of Roslin Technologies) showed these proteins can be purified in a way that is scalable for mass production. There are different ways of making proteins for therapeutics but some of these can be very costly. The big thing about making genetic changes is that they are inherited, so once you have identified a genetic line you want to keep going, you can generate a lot of birds relatively quickly. It means the production of certain medicines could be made more cost-effective.

We are also looking at whether we can make chickens resistant to some of the major diseases they suffer from, such as bird flu. In a previous project we got as far as creating chickens that succumbed to infection but didn’t transmit it. My guess is that we need to make the birds resistant to avian flu through more than one route, so they would be more effective at blocking any evolution of the virus that overcomes the genetic resistance.

Don’t think you have to wait to be the person who has the big idea. One of the things I value about being in research and science is that anybody can come up with a ground-breaking idea – it can be a PhD student, a post-doc or a professor – so it’s really important to listen to everybody.

When I had my children in the 1980s, there was very little support. No-one asked about childcare or help coming back to work. It’s very different these days and my advice would be to take all the support on offer – not just mothers, but fathers, too. I feel very strongly that we need to see men as parents as well. It’s perfectly possible for anyone to have a career and family if the support is there, and I think universities and business are starting to realise any investment in this pays off.