Scientists develop genetically modified cows to produce “human” breast milk

April 12, 2011

I debated with myself whether or not to comment on this, as it has certainly had widespread attention in the newspapers. It seems that I won the debate so here goes. The words ‘genetically modified’ never inspire me with confidence and attempting to give babies such a product truly worries me.

China Agricultural University Scientists have bred 300 cattle that have been given human genes to make their milk contain the same nutrients and fat content as breast milk. Professor Li, who led the research, and his team used cloning technology to introduce human genes into the DNA of Holstein dairy cows According to the Professor, the product could offer mothers an alternative to conventional infant formula. Why? There are already plenty of alternatives available to women who do not wish to, or cannot, breastfeed and it is already well established in the nutritional field that cow’s milk is not natural to babies, and indeed can be the cause of a basic allergic reaction in many.

Human milk differs from cows’ milk in several important ways. It contains high quantities of nutrients beneficial to a baby’s growth and immune system. It provides, without question, the best possible start in life for an infant’s health. Cows’ milk is much harder for a baby to digest, has less fat and fewer carbohydrates and contains no antibodies that protect against disease.

One variety of the GM cows produced milk containing lysozyme – an antimicrobial protein found in breast milk that protects babies from infection. They also created cows that produced human lactoferrin, a protein which boosts the immune system. A third human milk protein called alpha-lactalbumin was also expressed in the milk. Prof Li claims his team has boosted the milk’s fat content by a fifth and changed the levels of solids to make it close to the composition of human milk. The developers say it could help mothers who cannot breastfeed their babies and do not want to use formula but why they imagine giving an artificially altered milk is any better than a formula is something I have not yet got to grips with. The developers also claim ‘The milk tastes stronger than normal milk, and within ten years, people will be able to pick up these human-milk-like products at the supermarket.’ Alongside the other genetically modified products that will no doubt have crept into the marketplace, and some scientists in 20 years time will be getting a grant to investigate this is why these products are causing health problems in the consumer.

And just who is willing to take such a risk with their baby’s health? Or new product carry risks, and the risks are usually not apparent until the product has been in use in some time — would you gamble with your child’s health on that basis? Breast milk is promoted worldwide for the very good reason that it is perfectly suited to the babies health and growth and no cows’ milk is ever going to be able to match that.

So no, I don’t agree with genetically modified milk for babies and what about the poor old cows? In two experiments by the Chinese in which 42 GM calves were born, just 26 survived. Ten died soon after birth and six died within six months. A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals said: ‘Offspring of cloned animals often suffer health and welfare problems, so this would be a grave concern. Why do we need this milk – what is it giving us that we haven’t already got?’

Certainly China’s rules on GM food are more relaxed than those in Europe and the GM milk would not be allowed on sale in Britain unless it was approved by the European Union and passed stringent safety tests. However, some British scientists said the research could be of huge benefit. Prof Keith Campbell, a biologist at Nottingham University and a member of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, (so not an unbiased commentator) said GM animals were not a threat to health unless scientists deliberately gave them a gene that made their milk toxic. ‘The modified milk could help boost sales of dairy products in Asia, where more than nine in ten people are lactose intolerant and cannot consume cows’ milk without suffering stomach upsets and cramps.’

What that it does for me is raise what I think is a very reasonable question, which is why is boosting dairy products a priority? If 9 out of 10 are lactose intolerant then why try to force to drink milk when it is not indigenous to their culture? It leads me to wonder just who is sponsoring this research and I suspect the dairy industry might have had a hand in writing a large cheque.


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