by Kim Griggs
3:00 a.m. Aug. 2, 2000 PDT
WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- The lush pasture of some of New Zealand's finest farming land, in the heart of the North Island near where the country's sleekest racehorses are bred, will soon be home to a special herd of cows.
New Zealand's state-owned agricultural research institute has just won government approval for a five-year field trial to insert an artificial Phil L'Huillier and his team at AgResearch's Ruakura Research Center will transfer transgenic cells into cows' eggs, culture embryos, and then transfer those embryos to surrogate mothers. The calves they produce will carry the synthetic gene, and should produce the human myelin basic protein in their milk.
The role of myelin in multiple sclerosis has been known for quite a long time, L'Huillier said. But getting enough of it has been a problem.
That's where cows' milk comes in. It becomes a "biological factory" for the MBP, which would then be purified and eventually put through a clinical testing process to determine its efficacy in treating multiple sclerosis.
Myelin is the protective sheath around nerves which prevents "short circuits." When a person has multiple sclerosis, the myelin is destroyed, perhaps as a misdirected response by the body trying to fight off some other infection, said Tom Miller, research director of New Zealand's Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"(It's a) bit like friendly fire when you kill your own soldiers," Miller said.
The MBP produced in cows' milk could act as an alternative target. "The immune system goes for the surrogate target, rather than the myelin itself," Miller said.
Using the technique with milk is not new. Sheep and their milk are being used here in cystic fibrosis research, and goats are being used in U.S. research into hemophilia.
But even though the AgResearch request was only for a strictly contained
field trial, the application has been hotly debated. Approval of the project
by New Zealand's Environmental Risk Management Authority, which considers
all such applications, was not unanimous.