It’s difficult to understate the importance of a mother in early life. A mother’s milk is responsible for populating the microbiome of her baby’s digestive system, setting lifelong taste preferences, and providing the nourishment he/she needs to survive. Breast milk also gives the developing child immunity against possible infections, and recent research suggests that infants who drink formula instead of breast milk can experience a host of digestive issues later in life.
But not all mothers are able to breastfeed. For a host of different reasons, some moms are biologically unable to produce enough milk; and even though there are medications they can take to increase milk production, those chemicals can be released during breastfeeding and effect the developing child. While animal milk can be used as a substitute, it doesn’t provide the same enzymes and bacteria that a mother’s milk provides. Well… at least not yet.
Enter transgenic goats.
Researchers at the University of California-Davis are thinking way outside the box to develop breast milk alternatives — options that, if successful, could save the life of millions of undernourished children in the developing world.
Animal scientists at the University of California, Davis have figured out how to genetically engineer domesticated mammals to produce some of the enzymes and proteins found in breast milk. This means that infants who couldn’t breastfeed could instead drink goat milk with about 60 percent of the beneficial immune-boosting and just general good-for-you power of mother’s milk. There’s other stuff they can do with this fancy altered goat milk, like make milk last longer on the shelf or provide enzymes that prevent simple but often deadly disorders like childhood diarrhea.
The transgenic dairy goats can make milk with up to about 60% of the lysozyme and lactoferrin found in mother’s milk, which means a longer shelf life (these chemicals kill pathogenic bacteria) and also a faster cheese-ripening process (they kill off the milk’s beneficial bacteria sooner). So far, though, neither babies nor researchers have actually tried the modified milk, but baby pigs have. In a recent study on the toddler equivalent in pigs, Maga says, “We found that pigs can resist infection by E. coli, so we’re using them as a model to treat and prevent childhood diarrhea.”
While the results so far have been hopeful, the study is being met by criticism from opponents of genetically modified foods. Some scientists have expressed concern about genetically modified crops because of safety and ethical concerns, and genetically modifying animals opens a whole new Pandora’s Box. How will these genetic changes effect the health and wellbeing of the goat? What will the long term effects of drinking transgenic goat milk be on a child? If you change one gene, will the expression of other genes be effected as well?
Until more research can be completed (much of it will need to be longitudinal), these questions will be left unanswered. But in the mean time, they’re worth considering. As science makes possible what was once only the wild fantasy of a science fiction novelist, new ethical questions arise. How we answer these questions will determine future policies — and these policies could determine the life or death of children in coming generations.
So what do you think? How do you feel about the ethics of genetically modifying animals to produce human-like breast milk?