Biotech bull still has to earn keep after spotlight

Monday, April 1, 2002

POLSBROEK, Netherlands -- Herman, the world's first farm animal carrying a human gene, sired 55 calves and outlived them all. Now, instead of retirement on a comfortable bed of straw listening to rap music, the bull has to make a living again.

His sponsors have run out of money, so starting next summer, he will star at a permanent biotech exhibition in the city of Leiden.

Still, at least an act of Parliament has spared him from the slaughterhouse.

He was supposed to be killed once he had outlived his usefulness generating a human milk protein, but the Dutch public rose up in protest, especially after seeing TV footage of the amiable bull licking a kitten.

Now two new corporate sponsors will pay the $38,700 a year for his food, rent and caretaker's salary. They also will cover the cost of housing the world's first cloned cows, Holly and Belle, which also will move to the Naturalis museum in Leiden.

The 11-year-old bull seemed content the other day, even playful, as he strolled in the stall where he has lived since 1994. It's twice as big as the one shared by Holly and Belle.

"Herman is pampered," said Marije de Vos, his caretaker. "But he is our little star. He has an extra large stall, sleeps on a thicker pile of straw and gets brushed every day."

The 2,500-pound beast has black eyepatches on a white face, stubby horns, and a way of affectionately nuzzling the caretaker through the metal bars of his stall.

From the back of the stall comes an uninterrupted flow of music, mostly rap. "He has been listening to this channel round-the-clock since he arrived here," said de Vos. "It makes Herman calm."

De Vos became Herman's caretaker after Pharming Group NV, the Leiden-based biotechnology firm that created him in 1990, ended the program for which he was born.

Though he looks ordinary enough, Herman carries an extra gene modified from human material. The gene, which was injected in a laboratory at the early embryo stage, bears codes that produce a human milk protein called lactoferrin in his female offspring. The iron-rich protein kills germs and stops or prevents infections.

Experiment failed

But Pharming found the yield of lactoferrin too low and the cost of extracting it too high.

Further experiments produced other cows that are transgenic -- bearing genes from another species -- with improved lactoferrin production. However, it will take years of trials before health authorities approve lactoferrin for public use.

In the meantime, Pharming has shifted its focus to other transgenic animals producing human proteins, such as rabbits.

The 55 offspring that Herman produced all were killed after the end of the experiment, in line with Dutch health legislation. Herman was supposed to die too, until Parliament intervened.

But he won't escape entirely unscathed. The government has ordered him castrated to make sure he never reproduces again.

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