17 January 2000
ByAppeared in BioNews 041
Scientists at PPL Therapeutics have announced that 'humanised' milk could be produced from genetically modified (GM) cows. PPL has already given human genes to three cows to make them produce alpha-lactalbumin, a protein normally only found in human breast milk.
The protein contains chemicals which are essential for the healthy development of babies. If cattle could be genetically altered to produce the protein in their milk, this milk could be used as part of the treatment for premature babies whose mothers are unable to breast feed, for the elderly and, potentially, for a wider variety of disorders. The protein would be classed as a medical product and would therefore require clinical trials before it could be used.
David Ayares, vice-president of research and development at the American subsidiary of Edinburgh-based PPL in Virginia, said that the milk will probably be ready for clinical trials in 'about 30 months', but would not be on the market 'for many years'. Nonetheless, various groups and anti-GM organisations have attacked the development. Belinda Phipps, of the National Childbirth Trust has said 'there is a widespread concern about GM products and foods. Public reaction to GM food for babies is not likely to be positive'.
A spokeswoman for the pressure group Baby Milk Action said 'the brilliant thing about real breast milk is that it's full of antibodies from the mother. It's a cocktail that is absolutely irreplaceable. The whole idea that this is like human milk in a tin is absolute nonsense.' Sue Mayer, of the pressure group Gene Watch, believes that the news has raised 'ethical issues about the use of human genes and animal welfare'. There has also been some protest about the suggestion that the protein component may be added to commercial infant formula.
PPL has denied that alpha-lactalbumin will become a consumer item and said that the use of the protein as an 'additive to conventional infant formula was only ever a theoretical possibility'.