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5-Animals: PPL plays down "human milk cow" research



-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Company plays down "human milk cows" research
SOURCE: PA News, by John von Radowitz
DATE:   January 12, 2000

----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ ------------------


Company plays down "human milk cows" research

A British biotechnology company has played down reports that it
has been working towards breeding cows that produce human breast
milk. But a senior executive of PPL Therapeutics revealed that
the company was negotiating partnership deals with three major
infant formula companies. Research and development chief David
Ayares told Channel 4's The Mark Thomas Product that PPL's
American subsidiary in Virginia already had a 20-strong herd of
cows whose milk contained a protein component of human milk.

Mr Ayares, vice-president of R&D in Virginia, said the ultimate
aim was to produce cow's milk that was almost the same as that
from a mother's breast. He told the programme: "We have the
animals on the ground, and they're all making high levels of this
human protein in their milk ... "This will be a nutritional
product ... so you don't need to go through the same type of
clinical trial process that you would for a pharmaceutical, which
is what most of PPL's products are ... We feel we could probably
launch this product in about 30 months."

After a lengthy delay, PPL's corporate headquarters in Edinburgh
later issued a statement denying much of what Mr Ayares said in
the interview. The statement said PPL had no more than three cows
producing the protein, human alpha-lactalbumin, a major
constituent of human breast milk. The protein was intended as a
dietary supplement for babies born more than three weeks
prematurely who could not be breast fed. Purified human alpha
lactalbumin would be a medical product, not a consumer item, and
require clinical trials, said PPL. The statement added: "While it
is, at least in theory, possible to make many genetic
modifications to produce a cow which produces milk similar to
human milk, PPL does not have, and never has had, plans to do
this." Earlier, campaigners against breast milk substitutes and
uncontrolled genetic research reacted with alarm at the report.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust,
said: "The idea of breeding a GM cow to produce a hybrid GM milk
may appeal to scientists and manufacturers, but parents want
their babies to have a safe and healthy start in life. "There is
widespread concern among consumers about GM products and foods.
Public reaction to GM foods for babies is not likely to be
positive."

Pattie Rundall, policy director of Baby Milk Action, said: "Milk
from a cow is never going to be the same as breast milk." Sue
Mayer, of the pressure group GeneWatch, said: "You are dealing
with the nutrition of babies. Is it justifiable to go as far as
using human genes to make powdered baby milk, when it can never
be a substitute for breastfeeding?"

News of the research emerged when the Mark Thomas Product
programme was tipped off about a patent held by PPL Therapeutics.
The patent covered the production of the human breast milk
protein alpha-lactalbumin from cows. This is achieved by adding
the human gene which codes for the protein to the cows' DNA.
Interviewed by former political comedian Thomas, Mr Ayares said
the research had been going on since 1992 and was now ready for
commercial exploitation.

The research phase for the work was sponsored by the American
food and drug company Wyeth, which makes Britain's leading baby
milk brand SMA. Wyeth told PA News it was no longer involved in
the project or had any interest in it. Despite health messages
that "breast is best" the powdered baby milk industry is worth
160 million a year in the UK alone. A cross-department government
statement threw doubt on whether a "humanised" infant formula
could be sold in Britain. It said: "Before any application could
be made all of the health implications would need to be
stringently assessed. "Any company showing an interest in
marketing such a type of milk would need to fulfil all of the
requirements of relevant regulations, whether as a medicine or as
a novel food."

In its statement, PPL said the use of human alpha-lactalbumin as
an additive to conventional infant formula was "only ever a
theoretical possibility". No decision to use the product in that
way had been made. The statement added: "Even if it were, the
product would not be available for many years due to the need for
extensive clinical trials and the practical difficulties in
building up a herd large enough to provide in commercial
quantities."

PPL had discussed the product with infant formula manufacturers
over a number of years but currently had no commercialisation
agreements. It said a product for clinical trials could be
available in 30 months but it would take much longer to produce a
herd large enough to supply the protein on a commercial basis. 


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