By WittyKnitter

From China, the intriguing news that scientists have genetically modified cows to produce milk with human proteins in it. This is not the same things as genetically modifying cows to ‘produce human milk’, as it has been reported.

To me, this is a truly bizarre story. Presumably, this project was the result of several appalling events that have been reported (and maybe more we haven’t heard about) in which babies have become seriously ill and even died from drinking formulas that their parents believed would be nutritious: here, here and here, for example. This makes the comments of Prof Campbell at the end of the first article linked above (asking why people would put poison into food) a little disingenuous.

I’m writing as someone who was a trained Leader in La Leche League in a past life; I was, in fact, the PR person for the organisation in New Zealand for a while, so I once knew a lot about the constituents of human milk. My knowledge is about 30 years out of date, so I’ve done some quickie research in the scientific literature, and what I remember seems to be still held as true: There are essentially two physiological reasons why human milk is good for human babies: one is that it is perfectly suited to their digestive needs – in other words any mother’s milk is good for any baby. This is acknowledged in the article, in which they claim to have synthesised some of the anti-microbial properties of human milk. (Some women I knew used to swear by a squirt of  human milk as a treatment for conjunctivitis.) The other is that a mother’s milk changes all the time, according to her baby’s needs. Premmie babies get milk that is higher in calories for example, than full-term babies, and (this is crucial) if a breastfeeding mother is exposed to infection and forms anti-bodies through that exposure, these antibodies will also pass into her milk – the igA and igG proteins will be modified to pass this immunity on to to her baby..

I’m really happy that breastfeeding now seems to be the default way of thinking about food for babies, but I can’t help feeling a bit weird about the way that people fetishise human milk. For example, I think that the lengths that Elton John and David Furness have gone to are really a bit silly: the milk for little Zachary Furness-John is expressed by his birth mother in the US, then Fed-Exed. Really, they might have been better to have found a local woman prepared to provide his milk: at least resistance to any local infections that human milk could provide the baby may be to the infections that he is likely to be exposed to, rather than getting the apparently uniquely precious fluid from thousands of miles away. (What am I saying? – surely no microbe would dare to invade the nursery of this pampered infant!)

Human milk banks – the modern answer to the old job of wet-nursing – are one way of ensuring that more babies get access to human milk. Unfortunately, in these litigious times institutions are reluctant to operate them for fear of spreading infection – the AIDS epidemic has ended the lives of the few institutional HMBanks that did exist in the US –  and there seems to be some evidence that pasteurised breast milk may not be much better for babies than good formula is. However, in Australia there are at least two private Human Milk Banks that run on private donations (one in Queensland and one in Victoria), and at least one attempt to charge extortionate prices for human milk has been reported. The internet has made it possible for a revival of human milk banks in the US. But, on the whole, I think that the babies who get milk from local women through these banks are lucky – they are probably getting the best nutrition as well as the best chance of support for their immune systems. The great majority of them will do well on formula too, but for the small (but maybe growing) number of infants who have a genetic disposition to immune disorders and allergies, human milk can be a huge help or even a lifesaver.

Which brings me back to the cows in China. (Poor cows!) I’m not a biochemist, or a physiologist, or a nutritionist, and maybe someone out there is and can reassure me, but I wouldn’t feed a baby this stuff unless it were the absolutely only thing available. It’s hard to see what advantage it would bring to babies whose mothers can’t or don’t wish to feed them over good-quality formula or human milk from a milk bank (and how would you design a RCT to test this? whose babies would be fed the GM milk? how long would you have to keep monitoring the children to ensure no lasting ill-effects?) ) The proteins that they’re claiming to have modified the cows to produce won’t be responsive to local infection (although maybe the babies won’t even get cow-pox!), and who knows what other dangers might lurk in the innocent-looking fluid. One thing that does seem odd: Professor Li is quoted as saying “The [GM] milk tastes stronger than normal milk.” As anyone who’s taste-tested knows, human milk tastes a lot ‘weaker’ and sweeter than cows’ milk. Maybe he meant to compare the GM milk to human milk? Or, maybe he thinks that ‘stronger’ will translate to ‘better’ for customers.

I hope that this milk, if it is made available for purchase, will be good for babies, especially babies who are fed from a bottle in the third world, or in places where hygiene practices aren’t good. But for myself, I’d rather have seen the lab trying to improve the existing formulas, and the Chinese government putting energy into supervision of the manufacture of baby foods. Human milk is human milk, it is the best way to feed babies, and good quality formulas, which a large percentage of the population of the Western world were raised on in the first half of the 20th century, are available to replace it where necessary.


  1. Movius
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Genetic Modification is a wonderful thing. Like the green revolution, but better.

    Assuming the source article is accurate, this is a positive development.

  2. Posted May 2, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    There is a BSE joke in there somewhere, LE, but I’m not going to indulge it…

    I suppose my concern here is that the research in question comes from China, and as WK quite properly points out, China hasn’t exactly been stellar in the baby milk department.

  3. Posted May 2, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    It’s not a bad development, but human milk it ain’t.

    (Btw, in a former life my work depended on me knowing pretty much all the different requirements, even for very pre-term infants with metabolic disorders where the milk from the individual mother would rip the baby’s guts apart, and I’d done some dna recombination in e coli before ethics committees started stopping the fun – and recombining dna is much more fun than lego. So, I was making myself whey-dominant hot chocs long before anybody thought of selling them to wannabe athletes … But I did it for taste.)

    As I see it, there is nothing like the milk of a mother to /her/ baby … DIRECT. Some goodies are lost in glass, other goodies lost in plastic storage (wet nurses could be better than donations in bottles). As well as things promoting immune systems, presenting processed antigens the mother has eaten is also useful for reducing chance of food sensitivities later.

    This current thing is more a lysozyme production tool rather than getting cows to produce human milk. Expressing useful compounds in milk is a great way of getting the stuff ready to extract in an industrial process (and then used as an additive to other food manufacturing processes). There are many other things that could be produced this way – not necessarily natural compounds, not necessarily for nutrition. It’s easier to get lysozyme in cow milk because it’s not a very different process in the cow than the human. The lysozyme would be extracted and then added to the standard process for producing whey-dominant mixes.

    GM cows are easier to manage than GM microbes – or plants … The genes don’t get blown all over the place by the wind, and the aim of THIS research is positive, like adding missing amino acids into corn, not the nasty roundup-ready thing that merely promotes spraying more poison around the environment.

    So this is all good.

    As for a cow producing “human milk” … Can’t see it … The effort of getting ALL the changes, regulation of whey/curd ratio, fatty acids and sugar balances, as well as extra components not found in cows … All into the same cow? Economically dumb. Easier to have specialist cows for each compoment, and maybe one breed that might be whey-dominant to an extent, and then mix accordingly, add vitamins and minerals.

    I expect the first application of these cows will be as an additive to up-market formulae, hype to increase margin or as a product differentiator.

    The issues that will be tricky with this type of GM is the welfare of the animal. Splicing and getting useful expression of something valuable is tricky, and if the only successful expression is in a line suffering the horrible effects of cloning like Dolly the sheep? We do need to figure out some guidelines for this. Getting human insulin or tricky hormones that can be milked repeatedly rather than killing an animal and extracting the product from tissues could be a huge benefit, the product might be economically valuable … but there might be real cruelty involved.

    The “human milk” thing is newsworthy, makes the public sit up and take notice, and gets lawyers and legislators talking about the rules that should apply to GM mammals for chemical production.

    Of course, if you wanted human milk production from non-humans, there’d be a hell of a lot less engineering required if you used chimps rather than cows. But that opens up another can of worms.

  4. Posted May 2, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] – yeah, Chinese infant formula has had its problems, but with the key offender copping a death sentence, there is probably some deterrent for white-collar crime of that sort in the industry now.

  5. Rafe
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    This is an aside too, something for your blogroll:)

    ht Barry Williams

  6. Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks Rafe. That was hilarious. I’ve posted the permalink here, because the link now takes you to a more recent post.

  7. Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I must admit I’m still trying to get my head around the concept of Fedexing breast milk. It’s a bit like LE’s mad cow story. There is a joke in there, but I’m not sure what it is, and whether it would be funny ha-ha or funny peculiar.

  8. Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    It is a very, very bizarre idea. But hey, if you have the money…!

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