Scientists Milking Mice for All the Human Milk Protein They’ve Got

By Allison Bond | June 3, 2009 3:17 pm

mouseCould milk from mice be the next key ingredient in infant formula? Perhaps…if researchers can find an efficient way to milk them, that is.

Apparently, getting the tiny rodents to produce lactoferrin, a protein found in human breast milk, wasn’t a problem, once the Russian scientists added a few human genes to the mice’s genome.

Mouse milk naturally has a higher concentration of proteins than the human stuff, so when the mice began producing human milk protein, they made a lot of it. In fact, the fuzzy creatures produced up to six ounces of lactoferrin per quart of milk, as opposed to the measly four to five grams per quart pumped out by humans.  The lactoferrin in breast milk is important because it shields babies from infection as their immune systems form.

Mass production of human milk protein could allow the substance to be used in synthetic infant formula. Today, formula is largely made up of protein from soybeans or cow’s milk, and although the subject remains controversial, some experts say it does not provide babies with the same health benefits of human milk.

The scientists admit that milking mice on a large scale would be nearly impossible—but that didn’t stop them from trying it. Using a technique reminiscent of the cat in Meet the Parents, scientists gave the mice anesthesia and used tiny pumps to draw milk from their minuscule teats.

Researchers hope this technology will enable larger animals like cows or goats to produce the human milk protein—which might not be that far away: A company in the Netherlands already uses rabbits to produce a protein to treat a rare blood disorder.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Today’s Animal Mystery: Indian Mouse Problem Solved by…Rats
Discoblog: Turning a Mouse Into a Bat(-Like Weirdo) in One Easy Step
Discoblog: Want More Milk? Then Name Your Cows

Image: flickr / e3000

MORE ABOUT: babies, genetics, mice

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