AMSTERDAM--In an unprecedented move, the Dutch minister of agriculture has put a stop to cloning experiments carried out by Pharming, a company based in Leiden, the Netherlands, that specializes in producing drugs in milk. According to the government, Pharming must desist from cloning cows until the company proves that drugs from such animals are better than those made by other methods. The ban came a few hours after Pharming on 26 February announced the births of Holly and Belle--two calves cloned from embryonic cells--and applies only to work at Pharming. In a pointed response, the company said it plans to move its cloning research to the United States.
Several competing companies view cloning as a way to boost the efficiency of protein production in cows and sheep. Pharming currently uses a technique in which embryos are injected with the gene encoding a desired pharmaceutical protein and placed in another cow's womb. But this technique often doesn't work, and leads to many nontransgenic calves that fail to produce the target drug. Pharming is interested in using a potentially more efficient method called nuclear transfer to clone cows, because the technique could speed the process of growing herds that reliably produce drugs in their milk.
The Dutch government, however, permits genetic engineering and animal cloning only when there aren't feasible alternatives in lower organisms and when the benefits to society outweigh animal suffering. In January, a special committee advised agriculture minister Jozias van Aartsen to halt the project. The panel said that before Pharming can clone more cows, it must demonstrate that the cows can deliver better drugs than yeast or other alternatives can. Van Aartsen accepted the committee's recommendation and put the kibosh on further Pharming work in this area.
Pharming officials say the decision cripples its efforts to compete with Scottish and U.S. labs that are also racing to develop cloning for use in producing drugs in milk. The current technique is not a viable commercial approach, says Pharming Vice President Gerard van Beynum. He says the company "has no choice" now but to move its cloning research to the United States, where it will be carried out with Infigen Inc., a company based in DeForest, Wisconsin.