Engineered Cow Makes Human Insulin in Milk

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel. A genetically modified cow produces human insulin in its milk. This cattle may be key to solving the insulin supply problem the world has been fighting.

The sources of insulin used by people come from two methods of production. One uses genetically engineered e coli, and the other is a process that uses yeast. So, the fact that these cows are genetically engineered shouldn’t be as off-putting as it sounds — the insulin people are currently using is also genetically engineered.

These cows could make a massive amount of insulin. Right now, the research is very new. So far, they have only made one cow. She hasn’t gotten pregnant, but they used hormones to make her lactate. But, according to their early results, a herd could change the world.

Researchers hoped she would have proinsulin in her milk. Proinsulin is a protein precursor that can be processed and turned into insulin. Her milk did contain human proinsulin, but it also contained insulin itself.

You’d need specialized, high-health-status facilities for the cattle, but it’s nothing too out of the ordinary for our well-established dairy industry,” said Matt Wheeler from the Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who led the research. “I could see a future where a 100-head herd… could produce all the insulin needed for the country. And a larger herd? You could make the whole world’s supply in a year.”

Prof. Wheeler explained, “Mother Nature designed the mammary gland as a factory to make protein really, really efficiently. We can take advantage of that system to produce a protein that can help hundreds of millions of people worldwide.”

A single liter of the new cow’s milk makes 28,818 units of insulin. The cow produces 50 liters of milk a day. Insulin needs to be removed from the milk and purified for use in people, but the speed at which the process would produce insulin would be much, much faster than our current methods.

Right now, there is only one cow, and the FDA would need to review the process to approve it. This research won’t have results that will appear in the pharmacy tomorrow. However, this could be a huge step in easing the insulin shortages that impact so many people in the U.S. and around the world.  

Banner image: Adrian Infernus via Unsplash

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