‘Got Milk?’ could soon mean ‘Got Insulin?’ after scientists genetically alter cow

Mar 21, 2024, 4:44 PM | Updated: Mar 26, 2024, 4:00 pm

Photo: Scientists may soon be able to make insulin from cow's milk....

Scientists may soon be able to make insulin from cow's milk. (Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons via steve p2008)

(Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons via steve p2008)

The phrase ‘Got Milk?’ will have a whole new meaning if one professor and his team have their way.

University of Illinois Professor Matt Wheeler and his team genetically altered a Jersey cow in Sao Paulo, Brazil to produce human insulin in its milk.

“The mammary gland of a cow is a bioreactor to make a specific protein that we wanted to increase the amount of,” Wheeler said. “And so there is a little bit insulin in milk already. But basically, what we did is, we developed a DNA fragment account, we call it a DNA fabric construct, that basically targets the production of human proinsulin into the mammary gland of a cow.”

He said to speed up the process, the bovine underwent lactation induction. It’s when the body produces milk without being pregnant.

“When you do induced lactation, you really don’t know the amount that she’s (the cow) going to produce. I mean, she produces some grams per liter, but we don’t know if that’s two grams per liter, or 10 grams per liter, because you really don’t get an accurate number when you do lactation,” Wheeler said. “I mean, typically, a Holstein cow average Holstein cow in the Midwest or California would produce somewhere around 80 liters of milk a day. So if she made a gram per liter, and I think I did the math in the article, I mean that one gram per liter would treat about 2,800 (diabetic) patients.”

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What happened next was just short of a miracle.

“What’s special about this cow is we put in proinsulin, the gene for proinsulin, which is a precursor for insulin,” Wheeler said. “And the reason is because you don’t want active insulin being secreted unless it’s needed. And so these precursor molecules are produced and then the body (of the cow) enzymatically processes off a portion of it, we call the C-peptide. And then active insulin was there.”

But! We expected to have to take the milk and purify the pro-insulin and then process it enzymatically. Degrade it into insulin for it to be active. Well, (dramatic pause) … the cow did it herself,” he continued.

Wheeler provides background on insulin milk project

But it wasn’t easy getting to this step. Prior to the heifer producing human insulin milk, it took ten years of hard work and study.

“These kinds of projects are complicated. And, you know, funding is always an issue,” Wheeler said. “So this was one of those projects where we didn’t have a large amount of funding to do it.”

Wheeler and his colleague, Paulo Monzani, spent six months working on the construct and writing published papers back in 2014.

“And then he (Monzani) went back home to Brazil and tried to get funding to get the other piece (of the project) done,” Wheeler said. ” By the time we got all the analysis done, I mean, it normally would not take that long if you’d had adequate funding, but you know, we had to piece things together.”

And now, opportunity knocks. There’s more funding for further studies.

The hope is to create a small farm of Holstein cows that produce human insulin in milk because, “Over the last 20 years, the cost of insulin has gone up 600%. Well, it doesn’t need to.” Wheeler said.

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And to me, the ultimate goal is not to have to do anything, if we know it makes bioactive insulin, so a child with diabetes, doesn’t have to take a shot anymore. Maybe one day, they can take a pharmaceutical glass of milk, and that’s it, or yogurt or ice cream,” he continued.

What about the pharmaceutical industry?

And what about the pharmaceutical industry… are they beating down Wheeler’s research door?

“Well, I’m sure there are some folks that are not happy about it. But that, I mean, you know, I’m an academic scientist at a public institution, my job is to help, you know, feed people and hopefully alleviate, you know, disease. And so that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

And lastly, why cows and not goats or pigs? Simply put, Wheeler said it’s because they are bigger and produce more milk.

You can read more of Micki Gamez’s stories here. Follow Micki on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here. 

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‘Got Milk?’ could soon mean ‘Got Insulin?’ after scientists genetically alter cow