Don’t expect to see any human-like milk products on store shelves. That’s just a trick of redirection, hoping you won’t notice the ethical issue of patenting human genetics.
by Heidi Stevenson
The latest in genetic engineering involves implanting human genes into cow embryos to produce human-like milk. You can imagine who the intended recipients are, can’t you? Just think: There’ll be no need for mommy to risk saggy breasts to feed her baby! Baby won’t know the difference between a bottle and mommy’s breast! No more guilt for not feeding babies what’s best!
Or maybe not.
Scientists in China are claiming to have produced a human-like milk by introducing a human gene into 300 Holstein cows. They’ve inserted the gene for human lysozome (HLZ), which is involved in significantly more than production of milk. It’s an organelle, which is found in most cells, that’s involved in intracellular digestion. Thus, the entire cow’s body has been turned over to production of human-like cellular digestion.
No mention is made of how this affects the cows, but it’s difficult to believe that it’s anything but harmful, likely resulting in misery for the animals. Nor does it look like the result is anything that even approaches human-like milk.
The authors of the study, “Characterization of Bioactive Recombinant Human Lysozyme Expressed in Milk of Cloned Transgenic Cattle”, published in PLoS, state that HLZ “increases the levels of beneficial intestinal microflora and strengthens disease resistance in infants”. This is fine, but this is the only thing that they’ve introduced into cows’ milk. They have not duplicated the nutrient composition, though their hype would have you believe that’s been done.
Professor Ning Li, the project leader, stated, “The milk tastes stronger than normal milk.” That alone clarifies the fact that the result is far removed from human milk. The single most significant taste difference between human milk and cow’s milk—or most others—is its sweetness, not its strong taste.
Milk is, of course, the perfect food for the offspring of the mother. It provides perfect nutrition and a natural source of antibodies to prevent disease in the young. A breast-fed baby is known to have lower risk of disease and better development.
Obviously, the physiology and diet of the mother will have a great deal to do with the quality and substance of the milk—and the simple fact is that a cow is not a human. A cow doesn’t eat the same sort of food a human does. A cow has four stomachs, instead of a human’s single stomach. A cow’s digestion process includes chewing its cud. When was the last time you saw someone chewing cud?
A cow is never going to produce human milk, even with a human gene imposed on it. A cow’s physiology is simply too different. So what is this human-like milk?
The primary intention of the researchers can be discerned in this quote from the second paragraph of the study report:
Furthermore, some reports have shown that HLZ has anti-fungal and anti-viral activities. Moreover, changes in the HLZ concentration in serum or urine is used as a diagnostic marker for certain diseases. Also, HLZ is under study as a potentially useful material for use in food products, cosmetics (as a preservative), medicine feed, baby formula, and so on.
The researchers are focused primarily on using HLZ as a chemical. Cows are being genetically modified so that they will produce a chemical that they hope to use as a drug, diagnostic product, and additive to foods and cosmetics. If they can also convince the public that it’s a health food, then the profits will be even greater.
The scientists have also created cows that produce milk with the protein lactoferrin, which assists the immune system in babies. In other instances, they have increased the milk fat and changed the milk solids. However, each of these is a single change. They have not been combined.
The reality is that there has not been any milk produced by cows that comes near duplicating human milk. All that’s been done is the recreation of single human molecules in cow’s milk.
While the scientists are claiming that their cloning and GM technologies are harmless, the fact is that their experiments have been extremely harmful to the animals. During two of them, 42 calves with human genes were born. However, 10 died shortly after birth and 6 died within six months. Only 26 survived. Most of the deaths were from gastrointestinal disease. That does not bode well for the health or comfort of the surviving animals.
The Director of GeneWatch UK stated:
We have major concerns about this research to genetically modify cows with human genes. There are major welfare issues with genetically modified animals as you get high numbers of still births.
There is a question about whether milk from these cows is going to be safe for humans and it is really hard to tell that unless you do large clinical trials like you would a drug, so there will be uncertainty about whether it could be harmful to some people.
Ethically there are issues about mass producing animals in this way.
Deformed calves are being brought into the world to suffer horrendously so that a few people can make profits from their anguish. And we haven’t any reason to believe that these products are safe for humans.
Biology Professor at the University of Nottingham, Keith Campbell, states:
Genetically modified animals and plants are not going to be harmful unless you deliberately put in a gene that is going to be poisonous. Why would anyone do that in a food? Genetically modified food, if done correctly, can provide huge benefit for consumers in terms of producing better products.
Of course, Mr. Campbell doesn’t offer any basis on which he makes his claims. That’s because he can’t. There are no studies to document them.
So why are the scientists making irrational claims for their research? The answer is in the ultimate goal: profits. By creating buzz about what they’re doing, they can bring interest to their projects, while redirecting attention away from their real goal. The scientists are working in conjunction with Beijing GenProtein Biotechnology Company. This association is so close that four of them are employees.
Everything about the project is focused on publicity. The lead researcher, Ning Li, makes claims about the experiments that are simply not justified by the results. He stated:
The modified bovine milk is a possible substitute for human milk. It fulfilled the conception of humanising the bovine milk.
As explained above, that claim is far from reality. When a scientist makes such claims that are unjustified by studies, it can only be explained by a desire to sell products.
Perhaps they will ultimately manage to create cows that produce a human-like milk. First, though, the only thing that makes sense is that they intend to use the human molecules produced by the cows’ milk to evade questions about patenting human genes.
While everyone’s attention is focused on the idea of producing human-like milk from cows—a feat they aren’t even close to accomplishing—they will be working away at producing patentable products based on human genes by the convenient sleight-of-hand of slipping them into cows.
Don’t expect to see any human-like milk products on store shelves. That’s nothing but a trick of redirection away from the genuine ethical issue of patenting human genetics.