China Farms Out Human Milk Production

In ancient China, only the emperor and empress could afford to drink human milk. It was a statement of ultimate power, wealth and privilege. “Why not make that kind of milk more available for ordinary people?”

Li Ning, director of the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at China Agricultural University and a scientist who works at the Chinese Academy of Engineering not only asked that question, he's well on the way to answering it.

According to Ning, “The scientists have successfully created a herd of more than 200 cows that is capable of producing milk that contains the characteristics of human milk.” Several of the GM (genetically modified) cows were displayed earlier this month at an exhibition showcasing China's technological achievements over the 11th Five-Year Plan which concluded in 2010.

Cringe factor aside, drinking human-like milk sourced from non-human creatures would seem to make sense. After all, human milk has evolved nutritional qualities that are optimized for the nutritional needs of humans.

Cow milk, on the other hand, is ideal for calves. “Tweaking” dairy cows to produce milk better suited for humans would seem to make perfect sense. Still freaked out by the concept? Consider blood transfusions: if you needed a transfusion would you source the blood from a cow (assuming that was possible), or a fellow human being?

Chinese genetic engineers have achieved some success working with cows in recent years. The calf shown above, for example, was genetically engineered to produce human Defensins; microbicidal peptides that act against a variety of Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria, fungi and enveloped viruses.

Creating dairy cows whose milk contains the same healthy proteins found in human milk is the next step, followed by establishing ways to ensure the milk is affordable for ordinary consumers. Would consumers notice any difference in human milk produced by cows? According to Ning, “The milk tastes stronger than normal milk.”

Ning went on to predict that  “Within 10 years, people will be able to pick up these human-milk-like products at the supermarket.” You'll find them in the Mary, er, Dairy aisle. (via People's Daily and MST Newsletter, images via Sympatico News and The Latest World)