Monday, October 15, 2012

Another Rush to Implementation? Human Breastmilk from Genetically Modified Cows

From the CDC’s mPINC  of 2009 to the Surgeon General (US) Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding in 2011 to the Healthy People 2020 targets, we are all familiar with this country’s (and global) initiative to increase health of newborns and young children through exclusive breastfeeding.  More and more hospitals are working toward and achieving the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI).  And while this is all good news, there is some not so good news…if a baby is not breastfed, that means the baby is formula fed.  Statistics show repeatedly that infants who are formula fed are more likely to die no matter where they live on this globe.  And the health threat isn’t only for the children.  The incidence of maternal illness in those who do not lactate are higher for situations such as postpartum depression and breast and ovarian cancers.

Just when we thought we were making headway in the world of BFHI and staff training to facilitate labor practices that promote breastfeeding, a stunning development is making the rounds again in social media: genetically modified cows produce human milk.

In 2011, scientists in China announced their success in producing a human genetic coding in the DNA of Holstein cow embryos, thus producing a herd of cows that make a milk with the same nutritional properties as human breastmilk, but with a taste even stronger and sweeter. “The genetically modified cow milk is 80% the same as human breastmilk,” said lead researcher Dr. Li Ning. At that time, over 3000 cloned cattle lived on an experimental farm in suburban Beijing, announced the researchers at the State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology of the China Agricultural University.  Researchers were able to create a cow that produced milk with the human proteins lysozyme and lactoferrin.

But some interesting questions arise from this and it is the professionals who are asking. 

JH from Iowa said “On one hand, as a mother who had a horrible time breastfeeding because of low supply and an infant who was allergic to virtually every commercial formula and was unable to get donor milk, I think this COULD be a great alternative and save a lot of stress and anxiety over feeding infants quality nutrition.  However as a scientist, I am concerned about the safety of this, especially regarding future dairy allergies and what the other 20% contains.  I would want to know much more about the research and how the genetic material was obtained before making a decision one way or another.”

SD from West Virginia stated, “I’d rather see this much time and energy put into opening more human milk banks in the USA instead of worrying about striving for more GMO foods.”

AG from Wisconsin mentioned, “If it works out, and the product will make money – as long as they can keep the arsenic and such out of the cows’ diet.  People are uncomfortable with this kind of large animal cloning until they need the product it produces.  It may result in less processed milk formulas, which could be healthier for children.  It also seems like a gateway to more genetic experimentation.”

All too often in medicine, we find something potentially amazing discoveries and rush to implement them.  However, do we truly research the side effects both immediate and long term?  In many instances, we do not.  And this may be another time when we rush to implementation.

What are your thoughts?

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