AviGenics Inc., a small company near Athens, Ga., is trying to become the first company to create and commercialize recombinant biopharmaceuticals using transgenic chickens as bioreactors.
"We are pursuing several approaches to creating transgenic chickens, including a retroviral approach that works," said Carl Marhaver, the company's president and CEO. "Eggs are a sterile environment and we can express proteins in the egg whites that can be used for pharmaceuticals. There are transgenic goats, sheep and cows so why not transgenic chickens?"
Two people asked that very question and, as a result, AviGenics was formed. In 1996, George Murphy, who does new venture development in the life sciences from his offices in Menlo Park, Calif., and Robert Ivarie, a professor of genetics at the University of Georgia in Athens, decided to try their hand at transgenic chickens. Two rounds of private "angel" financings yielded about $1.2 million and in 1998 the company raised $4 million in a private venture round.
The company is currently shaking the bushes trying to raise $10 million.
"The same institutional investors who participated in the first round are willing to reinvest again in this round," Marhaver said. "What we're looking for is a lead investor to set the pace."
Among those who have committed financial resources are Cordova Ventures, of Atlanta; Kitty Hawk Capital, of Charlotte, N.C.; and TJ Javelin Fund, of Birmingham, Ala.
Chickens have several advantages over their transgenic animal comrades, he said. "There are a wide range of therapeutic peptides that can be manufactured through chickens. Eggs from transgenic poultry can yield valuable proteins at relatively low cost. The costs should be lower because chickens have a short time-to-market and are less expensive to raise."
Another benefit is that the chickens' transgenic output is in the sterile confines of an egg rather than milk, which brings about its own suitcase full of potential diseases and germs, Marhaver said.
So far, the company has proved its concept, he said. AviGenics has created three flocks of alpha-interferon birds. It reached its milestones of creating somatic and germline transgenic chickens, constitutive expression and synthesis of a foreign protein in somatic chimeras.
"We have created an animal whose offspring carry the foreign DNA," Marhaver said.
AviGenics has other projects besides transgenic chickens. The company is working on genetically modifying the chicken genome to help reduce the chicken's susceptibility to bacterial diseases, as well as improving the overall quality of life. AviGenics' technology may someday be used to incorporate novel genes for improving feed utilization efficiencies as well as incorporating genes responsible for stress tolerance.
Eventually, AviGenics wants the targeted expression of genes to enhance muscle fiber hyperplasia and hypertrophy, and increase the white and dark meat through gene targeting.
In addition, the company is "aggressively working to clone a bird," Marhaver said. "No one has done that. We think we'll have the first cloned chicken next year."