It sounds like the ultimate cure for Mad Cow Disease — a cow that cannot get the disease even if it’s exposed. A Midwestern bio-tech company called Hematech breeds animals for research and for producing medicines has developed such and animal.
President and Chief Scientific Officer Jim Roble helped start up the company in 1999. Roble says their main business is producing cows that can be used to make drugs for use on humans. World concern over Mad Cow Disease was at a peak in 1999 when the company started, so the scientists reasoned that their products would overcome a lot of consumer resistance if they could be produced using a cow free from any risk of the brain-wasting disease.
In addition to food and leather, he says we get a lot of products from cows. He lists "cow serum" which is collected from blood and used in cell cultures, and enzymes. There’s also gelatin, made from cow products, and the collagen used for cosmetic procedures. Mad Cow, or BSE, is blamed on a deformed particle called a prion so Roble says they bred a cow with no prions in its brain at all. Normally, he says,. there are good prions and bad prions.
The firm produced 12 prion-free cows, and Roble says, "Even though this is a natural protein present in the cells of the brain, ‘knocking out’ the protein doesn’t seem to have any effect on the cow itself." He says they’ve evaluated the animal and their health and they seem normal in every way. You might think that would be exciting news to cattle producers, but Roble says clearly it’s not.
He says now they finally addressed the issue, "fortunately or unfortunately, BSE is no longer much of a concern at least in the United States." Strict feeding and handling rules, combined with the tracking of animals brought from other countries, have led to the conclusion by the Centers for DIsease Control that there’s less than one case per million cattle in the U.S. That’s why Roble says farmers aren’t beating a path to his door.
"We don’t see this as having particular direct applications for animal agriculture, whether it be producing beef or dairy." The cattle that can’t get Mad Cow will be of value to pharmaceutical producers and others who can assure customers of their non-food products that they, too, will be safe from exposure to the disease. In 2003, Hematech formed a joint venture with Iowa-based Trans-Ova Genetics, another bio-tech company.