Milk could kill brain cancer? Genetically-modified cows could be next advance in biopharming

Milk may hold the key to beating brain cancer, according to new research. Scientists believe it can deliver gene-silencing drugs that shrink deadly tumors. That’s because milk contains chemicals that can carry siRNA’s (small interfering RNAs) that prevent manufacture of proteins that fuel the growths.

So how can this lead to a potential cancer cure? Currently, the dairy food’s nanoparticles are being cultured in the lab — but the ultimate plan is through biopharming. Scientists hope to breed genetically modified cows capable of producing the medical milk.

Project leader Professor Janos Zempleni, a nutritionist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, describes the potential as “enormous. It has not been realized yet at all.”

Fewer than half of patients survive beyond a year of being diagnosed with brain cancer. President Joe Biden’s son Beau died from the disease in 2015.

Recent studies show that cancerous tumors can be reduced by siRNAs that shut down genes. But getting them directly to the targeted area has remained elusive. Milk, it turns out, offers a solution.

Humans absorb siRNAs through food, explains Zempleni. Milk stands out for its robust ability. Once ingested, it helps them accumulate naturally in the brain.

The study, funded with a $630,000 government grant, uses milk-transported siRNAs to switch off a mutated gene that causes brain tumors. It offers also opens the door to treating rare genetic abnormalities that lead to brain cancer in young children.

Researchers are loading the natural milk nanoparticles, known as exosomes, with therapeutic material including siRNAs. They are culturing cells similar to cow’s milk in the laboratory to produce them, and infusing them into brain tumors in mice. The aim is for the siRNAs to effectively and consistently reach them, and then accumulate in sufficient quantity to reduce them.

Large-scale production of exosomes will be needed to meet clinical demand. Petri dishes can supply only a small volume of exosomes. Long term, the researchers seek to develop a genetically modified cow which will produce ample amounts through its milk.

“Such an animal would secrete milk exosomes conducive to maximal delivery of RNA therapeutics to brain tumors in human cancer patients,” Zempleni explains in a statement.

The drugs industry is already using “biopharming,” or the use of animals in producing medical treatments. Blood clot-buster Atryn, for example, is derived from the milk of genetically engineered goats.

“With our technology, you could actually use these milk exosomes, attach the appropriate feature and deliver a therapeutic to folks suffering from these rare diseases,” adds Zempleni. “I think this could be a huge game changer if we get a funding agency to take the risk of developing these animals. That is a difficult task. Making the cells in the lab is relatively easy, but taking this to livestock, a goat or a cow, it is way, way complicated.”

Giloblastomas affect an estimated one in 30,000 people. They develop when cells supporting nerves in the brain begin to divide uncontrollably. Surgery is the main treatment. About 40 percent of patients survive beyond a year, and just 17 percent more than two years.

Zempleni’s paper is published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Report by Mark Waghorn, South West News Service

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