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Cows Produce Human Insulin

Diabetes is a major health concern, affecting over 422 million people globally and 38.4 million in the US alone (11.6% of the population). While the exact number of insulin users is unknown, millions rely on it, particularly those with type 1 diabetes. The cost of this lifesaving medication is substantial, contributing to the total estimated $412.9 billion spent on diagnosed diabetes in the US in 2022. Availability of insulin, especially outside of America, can also be a problem. A new research breakthrough may change cost and availability.

Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Universidade de São Paulo have achieved a significant feat in animal biotechnology. They’ve successfully created the first transgenic cow capable of producing human insulin in its milk. Transgenic refers to an organism, usually a plant or animal, which has had its genetic makeup altered by the introduction of foreign genetic material from another organism. This process is often referred to as genetic engineering. The research may pave the way for a potential revolution in insulin production, offering hope for millions of diabetics worldwide who struggle with access and affordability.

“Nature designed mammary glands to be incredibly efficient protein factories,” said Matt Wheeler, a professor leading the research team. Professor Wheeler, a prominent figure at the University of Illinois, is the lead author of the recent study published in Biotechnology Journal. The study details the development of insulin-producing cows, marking a critical first step. Further testing and regulatory approvals are needed before widespread adoption.

The researchers used a sophisticated technique to insert a specific segment of human DNA into cow embryos. This segment contains the genetic instructions necessary to create proinsulin. Proinsulin is an inactive precursor protein which gets converted into mature insulin in the body. The embryos were then implanted in cows in Brazil, resulting in the birth of a single healthy transgenic calf.

A key advancement in this project involved targeted gene expression. This refers to a technique used by scientists to control exactly which genes are turned on (expressed) in specific cells or tissues of an organism. It’s like a dimmer switch for genes, allowing researchers to precisely regulate their activity. Unlike older methods, the researchers ensured the human DNA would only be active in mammary tissue, preventing the presence of human insulin in the cow’s bloodstream or other organs. Mammary tissue, also sometimes called breast tissue, is the primary tissue which makes up the breasts in humans and other mammals. One of its main functions is milk Production.

“Previously, we relied on less precise methods, hoping for expression in the desired location,” explained Professor Wheeler. “Today’s technology allows for much greater control. By using a mammary gland-specific DNA construct, we avoid unintended consequences and leverage the gland’s natural ability to produce large amounts of protein.”

The researchers were able to stimulate milk production using hormones. Although the milk volume was lower than expected due to the induced lactation, they were able to detect the presence of both human proinsulin and, surprisingly, mature insulin. “Our initial goal was to produce proinsulin, then purify it into insulin,” said Wheeler. “Remarkably, the cow’s own biology took care of that step. She’s essentially converting proinsulin into insulin at a ratio of about three to one, highlighting the remarkable capabilities of mammary glands.”

The researchers found the milk contained a few grams per liter of insulin and proinsulin. However, due to the induced lactation and lower milk volume, they cannot yet determine the exact amount of insulin a typical lactation cycle would produce. Professor Wheeler offered a conservative estimate based on typical Holstein dairy cow production (40-50 liters per day) and the potential for 1 gram of insulin per liter. This translates to a significant amount of insulin, especially considering the tiny unit sizes used for insulin dosage. “One gram translates to nearly 29,000 units of insulin,” explained Wheeler. “That’s just for one liter, and Holsteins can produce 50 liters daily. The potential is substantial.”

The research team plans to continue their work by re-cloning the cow. They hope to achieve successful pregnancies and full lactation cycles in the next generation. Ultimately, their goal is to create transgenic bulls that can breed with females, establishing a dedicated herd for insulin production. Professor Wheeler believes this approach could surpass current methods using transgenic yeast and bacteria. It eliminates the need for highly specialized facilities and complex infrastructure, leveraging existing dairy farming expertise. “While specialized facilities with high health standards would be necessary for mass-producing insulin in milk, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of our established dairy industry,” said Wheeler. “We know how to raise and manage cows effectively.”

Several steps remain before these cows can provide insulin for diabetics worldwide. Efficient collection and purification systems need to be developed, along with FDA approval. However, Professor Wheeler is optimistic about the future. He said, “I envision a future where a small herd, roughly the size of a typical dairy farm, could produce enough insulin for the entire country. With a larger herd, supplying the world’s needs within a year becomes a real possibility.”

Read the full article, “Milk to the rescue for diabetics? Cow produces human insulin in milk”, in ScienceDaily. Read more about other medical research in Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare.

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