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Care for an Ice Cold Glass of Humanized Milk?

by Guy McCardle

June 13, 2011

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Donate Leave it to the Chinese to best us in science again. Researchers there have genetically modified 300 cows to produce milk that is very similar to human breast milk. You know what makes it even more scary? The cows are clones. Yep, 300 cloned Chinese cows that have been genetically engineered to give an analog of human breast milk. Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Scientists have inserted a human gene into the bovine genetic information causing the animals' mammary glands to imbue their milk with a large quantity of lyozyme. This is an enzyme abundant in human milk but missing in cow's milk. The goal of this research, being carried out at the State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology in Beijing, China, is to put “human-like milk” onto supermarket shelves"and into baby bottles"all over the world. Aside from giving the modified cow milk the strong, sweet taste that you may or may not remember from your infancy, the introduction of lysozyme (which protects human infants from microbial infections) makes the milk much healthier and more nutritious, according to Dr. Ning Li of China's Agricultural University in Beijing, who led the research.

In case you were wondering, the cows were cloned using somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same method used to clone Dolly the sheep. This involves transferring the nucleus of a somatic body (cell) into an egg that has had its nucleus removed. Prior to inserting the somatic nucleus into the enucleated egg, Dr. Li’s group infected it with a virus carrying the human gene for lysozyme. Yes, you just read the words "infected" and "virus".

The function of lysozyme is to lyse, or split open, the cell walls of harmful bacteria found in the intestinal tract. In addition to its antibacterial effects, lysozyme works to boost the body’s immune response to infection. The immunological benefits imparted by this enzyme are an important reason why breast milk is so healthy for developing babies. It’s absent in most of the baby formulas commonly used to supplement or substitute breast milk.

In addition to the oft mentioned lysozyme, Dr. Li’s group successfully cloned cows that produce milk containing two additional human proteins, called lactoferrin and alpha-lactalbumin, both of which strengthen the baby’s immune system. Like lysozyme, these proteins are found in normal cow milk but increasing their amounts will provide a further boost to the baby’s immune system. On top of that the cow benefits as well. The human genes will help protect the cow’s udder from infection, possibly decreasing the need for feeding the animals antibiotics, a major contributor to the harrowing pattern of antibiotic resistance that is spreading worldwide.

Chinese scientists are making the cow milk more human-like in other ways. They have increased the milk fat content by roughly 20% and changed the consistency of the liquid to more closely match that of human milk. Ice cream can't be far behind.

When might we expect to see this genetically modified cow/human hybrid moo juice on the shelves of our local supermarkets and seven-elevens? "About ten years", says Dr. Li who is working on the project for a Chinese company called GenProtein Biotechnology. But what about the taste? Dr. Li describes his milk as having a "stronger" taste than "normal" milk. However, he did not indicate whether he was talking about normal cow milk or human milk.

Will we live long enough to see this kind of genetically engineered food product available in the U.S? Only time will tell. One can only imagine the debate this will will spark. Debate is good, however, it brings about scientific scrutiny. For now I guess I'll have to go back to having plain old safe raw milk on my Corn Flakes.


by Guy McCardle

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