Goats and Malaria: Milking the Way to a More Accessible Malaria Vaccine

As you walk into a small room in Kenya, you see a child, huddled in the corner of his bed. He’s shaking uncontrollably, and his skin is covered with a sheen of sweat. While you pause hesitantly beside the door, his mother carries in a pile of blankets and heaps them onto the child. The boy continues to shiver.

Malaria is carried and spread by mosquitoes.

Malaria is carried and spread by mosquitoes.

Later, you find out that this unfortunate child has been infected with malaria, the number one cause of childhood death in Kenya (Nesoba, 2010). Around the world, the number of annual deaths due to malaria was about 655,000 in 2011, according to the World Health Organization (Berkowitz, 2012). Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that takes on many different forms through its life cycle both inside the mosquito as well as inside the human body. Because of all this shape shifting, researchers have found extremely difficulty in developing a working vaccine.

The Massachusetts Herd: Vaccine-Producing Goats

For years, scientists from many universities and companies around the globe have been trying different ways to produce an effective vaccine; most methods are geared towards cell cultures in labs, but there is one especially creative method that stands out from the others.

Massachusetts study summary (Own drawing).

Massachusetts study summary (Own drawing).

Scientists have targeted MSPs, or malarial merozoite surface proteins, as a viable vaccine candidate. MSPs have been tested on humans in Papua New Guinea, and are successful in raising an immune response to malaria (Nicholls, 2004). Usually, MSPs are insoluble, and therefore hard to purify. However, realizing that the success of MSPs as a vaccine could lead to huge demand, about ten years ago, researchers at GTC Biotherapeutics (now called rEVO) turned to goats to mass produce the vaccine. A herd of goats in Massachusetts was genetically engineered to produce MSPs in their milk. For a reason not yet understood, MSPs from goat milk are not as difficult to purify. A herd of fifty goats could produce about 5 kg of protein, or MSPs, every year to be used in vaccines (Nicholls, 2004).

In the future, goats like this one might be able to produce malaria vaccine.

In the future, goats like this one might be able to produce malaria vaccine.

The Texas Herd: Drinkable Vaccine?

Last year, another herd of genetically engineered goats was raised in Houston, Texas by researchers from Texas A&M University. This time, the researchers’ objective was to provide an economic form of drinkable vaccine for those in third world countries. Their ultimate goal was to produce a herd of goats that would produce a drinkable form of malaria vaccine in their milk that didn’t have to be further processed with sophisticated equipment to be effective. The researchers have already successfully bred three goats that can produce vaccine in their milk. However, the product isn’t at its finest yet—the vaccine in these goats’ milk still has to be separated, purified, and injected in order to be useful. Researchers say it could take up to another 10 years to eliminate these extra steps (Berkowitz, 2012).

GTC Biotherapeutics was the company that first produced the transgenic malaria vaccines used in both the earlier and more recent projects. Harry Meade, Senior Vice President of Research and Development, said of the Massachusetts project, “I don’t think anybody has any other system that they could contemplate making these kinds of levels as cheap as what you can in milk” (Berkowitz, 2012). William Gavin, who is the GTC Senior Vice President of Operations, said that the vaccine produced was tested on mice, and it worked. For the more recent project in Houston, A&M had initially received embryos from GTC to implant in surrogate goat mothers, and these embryos had the malaria antigen. Three goats, No. 21 (female), and No. 17 and No. 19 (both males) were born within a day of each other, and all carried the malaria antigen. When No. 21 turned 9 months old, she was mated with No. 17 (Berkowitz, 2012). They hope to produce a herd of these transgenic goats.

Someday, the researchers hope to have a whole herd of goats that will produce a drinkable vaccine in their milk. The three goats bred for the experiment were chosen for their small size and hardiness. According to Mark Westhusin, a Texas A&M professor and a leader of the project, “They are easy to keep…They are just great animals in terms of what they offer to impoverished countries” (Berkowitz, 2012). These characteristics make them ideal for shipping to other countries, and make them easy to care for.

Texas A&M study summary (Own drawing).

Texas A&M study summary (Own drawing).

Other Uses for Transgenic Goats

The transgenic goat idea could also be used to cure other diseases—for instance, researchers are also currently using transgenic goats to produce more lysozymes (which protect against diarrheal diseases) in their milk (Schiller). Vaccines for diseases like chickenpox or HIV may even be produced in goat milk one day, making these treatments more accessible for people in developing countries. Recently, transgenic goats have also been used for purposes other than curing diseases—scientists have created goats that produce spider silk in their milk. The silk can be used for making artificial tendons or ligaments, true; but it can also be used for bulletproof vests and car airbags.

So, maybe in ten years, in the same village in Kenya that you walked into before, people will drink milk from goats around their community and will automatically be vaccinated against malaria. People will no longer have to worry as much about their children dying young from this disease, and they can instead focus on improving their lives in other ways. Milk, which has always been associated with healing, nurturing, and recovery, now has the potential to vaccinate against one of the most deadly diseases in the world—malaria.

In Brief:

  • Malaria is caused by an organism that shifts its shape a lot, so a vaccine is very hard to develop.
  • About 10 years ago, malarial merozoite surface proteins, or MSPs, were identified as a viable vaccine for malaria.
  • To mass-produce MSPs, scientists at GTC Biotherapeutics genetically engineered a herd of goats to produce MSPs in their milk.
  • Last year, more goats that produced milk with vaccine were bred in Houston—their purpose is to produce an economic drinkable form of malaria vaccine for third world countries.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw12. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

cYw12

Author: cYw12

I'm very involved in my school's Technology Student Association and Creative Arts Club. For the past three years, I've been a varsity swimmer for my high school, and I've been a competitive swimmer for my winter club team since I was seven. In my free time, I like to create digital art and write science fiction, as well as get involved in independent research.

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15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This article was very cool, and described to readers a very cheap way to eliminate such a devastating disease. The article also described the other uses for these genetically modified goats. Thank you for posting your wonderful article! If anything, you could fix a few grammar errors though.

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      #curiousYOUNGwriters #STEM I knew that Malaria was a deadly disease, but it was shocking to see that 655,000 people had died annually in 2011. I also thought it was impossible for another species to produce spider silk besides a spider. I thought it was interesting to find out that spider silk could be made into artificial tendons or ligaments. Overall, I never thought that milk could contain a vaccine and that can be very helpful, especially in third world countries where it can be next to impossible to get a vaccine.

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    Amazing! I’ve read many articles and have seen many documentaries on the dangerous disease Malaria. However, this is the first article where the cure is not mosquitoes net. Mosquito nets offer little help because they can really only aid in those who are sleeping. If the scientist are able to improve this process to the point where the goats are producing milk with a 100% guarantee of carrying the vaccine, than the world may one day have no fear of the malaria disease. Does anyone know if there are many different species of goats, and if so does this factor into the milk producing?

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    • cYw12

      Hi Caleb,
      Sorry for the late reply, but thanks for reading! To answer your question, theoretically, the species of the goat wouldn’t matter in terms of producing milk with vaccine. No matter what species, the DNA of the goat could be altered so that the goat produces vaccine in its milk. I’m not saying it’s exactly ethical to genetically alter all the goats to make them produce lots of vaccinated milk. It would still be easier to, say, select a species of goat like the one used in the study mentioned in the article that is hardy, small in size, and produces a relatively large quantity of milk naturally without genetic alteration. The more vaccinated milk, the better.
      Thanks again!

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    • cYw12

      Hi Caleb,
      Sorry for the late reply–but thanks for reading my article!
      To answer your question: theoretically, any species of goat could be used to create milk with vaccine. The goats could be genetically altered to produce what the researchers want. The issue is that if this were done, the price of doing so would be exorbitant, and often, it isn’t ethical to go around drastically modifying the DNA of animals anyway. Instead of genetically altering a goat to produce more milk, one could just select a species of goat that naturally produces a relatively large quantity of milk. The scientists in the Texas A&M study similarly chose goats that were small and hardy, instead of going through the effort to alter the DNA of a large goat to keep it small.

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    #curiousYOUNGwriters #malaria_goat : I found this article very interesting and learned a great deal about the malaria virus, such as its ability to mutate, which in turn leads to difficulty in creating a vaccine for it. The idea of manufacturing vaccines in goat milk is quite innovative – I have previously heard of vaccines being created in eggs, but never milk. If someone was lactose intolerant, however, would this vaccine not work for them? I was also intrigued by the manufacturing process, which involves separating the milk. Why does the milk need to be separated – could the part that is being discarded potentially have the malaria protein in it and be stronger than the part scientists are currently using for the vaccine? Also, have scientists tried any other forms of solutions for the MSPs to be purified in? I would definitely be interested in learning more about this topic.

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    • cYw12

      Hi Carolyn-
      I’m glad you found this article interesting. If someone is lactose intolerant, it’s because they lack the enzyme lactase to break down the sugar lactose in milk. These people could still probably benefit from the vaccine in goat milk by using lactose-free milk. Stores currently sell lactose-free milk, or milk has had lactase (the enzyme) added to it to break down the lactose. Lactase should not alter the vaccine. Check out this site for more information on this: http://www.yalescientific.org/2010/09/qa-how-is-lactaid-made/
      The vaccine needs to be separated from the goat milk (as of now) because the scientists have to figure out a way for an oral malaria vaccine to work. Most current vaccines have to be injected into the bloodstream so that antibodies to the virus can be built up. If the vaccine were to be swallowed, most vaccines would just become ineffective. Researchers in this article were talking of developing a vaccine that would still work if you swallowed it. Check out this link: http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-cant-all-medicine-be-swallowed/

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  4. Avatar

    It’s very sad to learn that half a million people die from Malaria every year and that it is also a large cause for childhood death in Kenya. This article provides a lot of information about cures to this horrible disease, making the problem with this disease seem more under control. This disease strongly affects third-world countries, making it even harder for the vaccine to be helpful for the people who can use it. Making my question, how do researchers plan on finding money to make this vaccine available to people who can’t afford it? This is a very serious disease and causes a great stress on the entire world. It’s great to see that researchers are coming close to a cure. #research #STEM #science #malaria #relief #help #kenya #death #disease #poor

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    • cYw12

      Hey, Katie. Thanks for reading my article!
      Right now, researchers are still trying to iron out the wrinkles in the process used to make vaccinated milk. As of now, a vaccination won’t take place if one drinks the vaccinated milk. The vaccine has to be separated. However, the scientists have looked a little further – they’ve selected a breed of goat to genetically engineer that is small and hardy. These goats would easily be shipped across oceans, and could live in rural communities. Since it’s the animals that are making the vaccines, the goats could reproduce and (this is the goal of the project) make a whole herd of vaccine and milk bearing goats. This way, the cost for vaccine is drastically reduced. We only have to find money to ship the first couple of goats to people in need of the vaccine, and once the goats are received, they can just live off grass and water. Scientists haven’t come to the stage where they have actually decided where the money is going to come from. There’s undoubtedly many options to choose from, though (online fundraising, sponsorship by patrons or companies, etc.)

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    #curiousYOUNGwriters #malaria #goats #geneticengineering The fact that we as humans have come from fearing diseases such as HIV, Alzheimers, and malaria to the point where cures for them are just around the corner is glorious. Disease which used to walk hand-in-hand with death now can be treated and nearly cured. Using goats as a medium to create a vaccine for malaria was genius. Malaria is most common in poorer countries and goats can be bred easily and cheaply given to a country in need of a vaccine. Medical specialists will not even be needed if this project progresses far enough since all patients will have to do is drink a glass of milk. I really hope this project meets large amounts of success in the future so that other serious diseases can be treated the same way. Has there been experimentation with the method of vaccination by genetically engineered breeding with any diseases besides malaria yet?

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  6. Avatar

    #curiousYOUNGwriters #malaria #goats #geneticengineering The fact that we as humans have come from fearing diseases such as HIV, Alzheimers, and malaria to the point where cures for them are just around the corner is glorious. Disease which used to walk hand-in-hand with death now can be treated and nearly cured. Using goats as a medium to create a vaccine for malaria was genius. Malaria is most common in poorer countries and goats can be bred easily and cheaply given to a country in need of a vaccine. Medical specialists will not even be needed if this project progresses far enough since all patients will have to do is drink a glass of milk. I really hope this project meets large amounts of success in the future so that other serious diseases can be treated the same way. Has there been experimentation with the method of vaccination by genetically engineered breeding with any diseases besides malaria yet?

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    Really nice article with great drawings and an interesting style. Who wouldn’t want to learn about biomedical research this way?

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    This is an incredible article and an amazing advancement in the bio-medical world. The prospect of being able to produce vaccines from genetically modified organisms offers a cheaper and more accessible method of providing live sustaining medical help to those in need. This could create a new era in the bio-medical field of cheep, safe, and accessible vaccines. While reading this article I started wondering why the goat in particular is used more than other animals for the production of the Malaria vaccine.

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    • cYw12

      Hi Joe!
      In the experiments discussed in my article, the researchers used goats. The goats were selected for their small size and hardiness. So, if vaccine bearing animals were to be shipped across oceans to places that needed malaria vaccine, it would be easier to ship these small goats than larger, more bulky cows. The goats also consume less than cows in terms of food, yet the goal is that they will still provide enough vaccinated milk to be effective to humans.

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  9. Avatar

    Great to read about how close we are to curing some of the most deadliest diseases in the world and how science is aiding!

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