Sunday, June 12, 2011

Human breast milk from cows: Thoughts

Last week there was a news item on the Chinese using GE to producing human breast milk from cows. My thoughts are:

a) The studies that show cows milk is bad for you are all done on pasteurized milk. This destroys many enzymes and massively reduces the nutritional value of milk.Therefore if you are making human milk, and you pasteurize it, you will lose the health benefits

This is why Peter Hartmen from Perth is working on a low temperature pasteurization process for human milk. This means milk can be donated to the hospital, then pasteurize to remove any infections eg hepatitis, before feeding to new borns. Because standard pasteurization doesn't keep the nutrients in milk.   

b) Human milk is low in protein and high in sugar. Calfs grow exceedingly fast compared to babies. From memory a calf increases its weight by 8 times, is the same time a baby doubles its weight. Therefore human milk is low in protein and high in sugars (so baby has easy energy and grows a little bit). Hence you can't make cheese from human milk as it is to low in protein. 

Therefore I struggle to see how a low protein, high sugar, fluid would be advantageous over cows milk (or goat or sheep milk) to an adult or older child. 

c) On the positive side human milk from cows would be great for mum's who have trouble lactating, or supplying human milk banks. The evidence for babies, especially premature babies, having human milk reduces risk of death by a factor of approximately 2.5 times, and reduces sickness risk by 8 times (from memory). So with these overwhelming benefits to babies, the question is is GE the most cost effective way to produce human milk. My thoughts are is that you would be much better to have mothers lactating  and donating (or being paid to donate) milk and the hospital setting up a milk bank (which they did have until 80's with the AID's scare). 

d) Effect of diet. The diet impacts the composition of milk. So if a mum eats lots of carotenoids, the milk produced contains them. I know when Tiffany when on a high vitamin B2 supplement here milk became greener due to the riboflavin. Riboflavin used to be called lactochrome, lacto from lactation as it is in high quantities in milk and chrome as a reference to the color change. It is also the vitamin that makes your pee yellow.

Back to the topic: If the cows have a diet that is made up of fresh green grass (for B vit's and carotenoids etc), mixture of green herbs/different plants, combined with natural seeds, then they will produce milk that may be nutritionally better than a mum on poor western diet. 

However I suspect, from looking at the video, that cows are barn housed. This means they are feed hay and "chicken food" ie dry grains. This is nutritionally very poor thus they will produce milk that is low in carotenoids, vitamin E, B vitamins, and likely lower in omega 3's. Therefore this is likely to be milk of low nutritional value.        

d) I used to be totally against GE of any kind. However I worked with a bloke, whose wife worked in a GE lab. She was making bacteria secrete some human protein. Before the bacteria were modified, they had to inject sheep with some substance. The sheep would then produce the correct protein. The sheep was then slaughtered and the blood extracted and processed to obtain the protein. This was then given to humans with a rare genetic disease which rendered them unable to produce this protein. This clearly is an expensive and complex process. Therefore the protein was expensive, and had a high risk of supply interruption if anything went wrong.

Through her work, the protein became massively cheaper, it took a who lot less time and effort in harvesting the protein and also saved some sheep:) So this GE had a very positive benefit for those who had this genetic disease. And saved us tax dollars as the cost of the protein was much lower. 

So I have changed my stance on GE. GE research maybe good, however GE research into modifying our food  I am still staunchly against
The argument in the video was that GE would help feed the masses. However most studies that I have seen looking at the cost benefit, they would be much better spending the money on helping rural farms. for example through micro loans, clean water supply, fertilizer, education on how to increase yields, diversification of income etc. etc. GE is very expensive and does not help the people who are purposed to benefit. 
Conclusion: If the milk is going to be unpasteurized, used to feed babies that would otherwise be on formula,  produced by cows on a high nutrient diet, and has a significant cost benefit over a "normal" milk bank then
I would support this technology. 

However I strongly suspect that none of these conditions would be meet (except for may the babies who would have been on formula). Furthermore it opens up the dangerous possibilities that this milk could be marketed to mums. So mums who don't want to breast feed, can't be bothered, somehow think their milk is inferior (it never is), or are swayed by clever marketing that they should be purchasing this milk over breast feeding will result in babies going onto the GE milk without real need. Therefore I cannot in good conscious, knowing how scientific advances are marketed, support this GE project.      

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