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Cows set to make milk that mimics human breast milk

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Baby eating

The news should send shock waves of incredulity and delight through the medical community and mothers around the world – at last, the ability to purchase real breast milk instead of formula is music to the ears of mothers who cannot or will not breastfeed. Exclusive breastfeeding has been linked to a number of important health benefits in the baby, everything from a lower incidence of allergies and colds, to a reduced risk of ear infections and, most dramatically, death from SIDS. Many studies also demonstrate that breastfed babies have higher IQ’s, a trait that persists through childhood. With such impressive credentials, it is no wonder that many new mothers try, despite full time working schedules and low milk supply, to provide their newborns with Mother Nature’s original and natural baby food.

In response to such a potentially lucrative product need, Chinese scientists have produced a herd of genetically modified cows that make milk that could substitute for human breast milk -- a possible alternative to formula in a nation rocked by tainted milk powder scandals. In 2003, after years of testing on mice, researchers created, via modern genetic engineering technology, the first cow that produces human breast milk. They are also proud to have produced a milk that tastes even sweeter and stronger than the original.

Li Ning, the project’s scientific director and lead researcher, says that the milk is 80% genetically human.

"Our modified cow milk contains several major properties of human milk, in particular proteins and antibodies which we believe are good for our health and able to improve our immune system,” he said. His team is set to have the product available on the market within three years.

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Behind the project’s efforts, supported by a major Chinese biotechnology company, is a series of poisonings and toxin scandals that have shaken consumer trust in China's dairy sector and its products. In 2008, at least six children died and nearly 300,000 fell ill from drinking powdered milk laced with melamine, an industrial chemical added to low quality or diluted milk to fool inspectors checking for protein levels.

The new milk, Li Ning says, will undergo stringent safety testing before it is submitted to the government for approval to distribute in the human population. Given China’s checkered record for food and other product safety, and the on-going debate about the safety of genetically-modified foods (GMO’s), enthusiasm for the new “breast milk” ought perhaps to be tempered with caution.

Greenpeace notes that China has been investing considerably in genetically modified food research in recent years, despite the lack of a credible, independent system of supervision and inspection, which is troubling. It also insists that genetically modified products should not be allowed to enter the human food chain.

Indeed, GMO’s are implicated in many adverse environmental outcomes, such as displacing natural crops and reducing bio-diversity by mixing into and taking over the genetic pool of natural plants and animals. Such an impoverishment in genetic variation might imperil future food security.

The benefits of breastfeeding are not strictly limited to the static chemical properties of the milk. The act of nursing an infant is at least a partial protective factor in and of itself. Also, nursing mothers’ bodies continuously modify the precise immunologic and nutritional content of their breast milk in direct response to the biochemical information transmitted from the suckling infant. This effect cannot be replicated in commercially produced breast milk.