A Sip of Medicine with Every Glass: Engineering Milk Cells to Deliver Drugs

In Brief:

Got milk? Most likely. The average American consumes over 20 gallons of milk each year. Parents like it because it helps strengthen kids’ bones, improves heart health, and provides various other essential nutrients. And while it may be hard to imagine any changes to this staple, scientists are now developing a new kind of milk that is additionally fortified with vaccines and medicines.

Past research has demonstrated that mothers’ breast milk is the best source of essential nutrients for infants. Besides reducing the likelihood of babies developing diseases and food allergies, breast milk is also healthier and more affordable than formula milk. However, Dr. Kathryn Whitehead, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, hopes to give it the power to do even more. She and others are working to enhance the benefits of breast milk by engineering milk cells to deliver vaccines to infants. Dr. Whitehead uses goat’s milk as a proxy for mother’s breast milk because it is easy to work with, plentiful, and accessible from a nearby goat dairy farm. She started by modifying some of the cells in goat’s milk to hold specific proteins.

Expanding the health benefits of milk in this way could be an effective strategy to increase vaccination rates, especially in countries where access to healthcare, including vaccines, is limited. It could also serve as a delivery method for proteins required for healthy development.

“We’re coming from a drug delivery perspective, and we specifically work on oral delivery of drugs,” says Rose Doerfler, the lead Ph.D. student from the Whitehead lab on this project. If their team is successful, it would allow infants to consume medicines along with other proteins that are already in breast milk, instead of needing to get injections.

Though Dr. Whitehead’s work is currently limited to animal studies, she hopes to start working with human babies and their mothers’ milk in the future. However, there are several ethical concerns with this transition. Understandably, people are very hesitant to test experimental procedures and medications on infants, whose health is more vulnerable than that of adults.

Scientists are engineering goat milk to deliver vaccines and medicines.

The benefits of fortified milk reach beyond infant vaccinations. Another study suggests that cow’s milk can be used as a drug delivery method for cancer treatment. By drinking a glass of milk, you would also receive your dose of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy often requires frequent visits to the hospital, “That’s expensive, and it’s hard on someone, especially when they’re sick,” says Dr. Tom Anchordoquy, professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado. Dr. Anchordoquy believes that delivering chemotherapy through cow’s milk would make treatment easier for patients, especially those who are more vulnerable, like children and the elderly. As he puts it, “You wouldn’t even need to be at home; you could take it on a cruise!” Though the use of milk may not make the drugs work better, it certainly can make chemotherapy or infant vaccinations less intrusive and more comfortable.

How do these curative substances become part of a drink like milk? Scientists extract tiny particles from unpasteurized milk called exosomes, which are then loaded with the drug. However, Dr. Anchordoquy points out that the process of loading exosomes with medicines “very much depends on the physical [and] chemical properties of the individual drug.” As a result, customizing the process for each drug can be time consuming. These modified exosomes are then combined with the rest of the milk. They can even be made into a milkshake or ice cream!

Dr. Anchordoquy and several of his colleagues worked to deliver the medicines in milk so that the drug will not break down when digested. He remembers thinking, “the idea that [a drug] would somehow pass through our stomach and remain intact and move to the blood, just seemed impossible.” Nevertheless, initial studies have been promising, and Dr. Anchordoquy believes milk-based medicine delivery is a feasible solution.

Despite the differences in their research, both Dr. Whitehead’s and Dr. Anchordoquy’s laboratories agree on milk’s potential for delivering drugs to people. Dr. Whitehead is looking forward to moving from goat’s milk to human breast milk for testing and extending her lab’s previous findings. Dr. Anchordoquy also hopes to start clinical trials soon, optimistically adding that “this could help a lot of people.”

For both teams, this is a grand undertaking, but perhaps in the near future, the medical community will “moo-ve” towards delivering treatments through milk.

Content Experts

Dr. Tom Anchordoquy is a professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado. He received his PhD in zoology at the University of California at Davis. His lab focuses on the development of synthetic delivery systems and use of exosomes for drug delivery.

Rose Doerfler is the lead PhD student on the project led by Dr. Kathryn Whitehead, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Works Cited

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  7. Satyanarayana, Megha. “These Scientists Want to Engineer Breast-milk Cells to Deliver Drugs to Babies. Here’s How.” Chemical & Engineering News, 27 Feb. 2019, cen.acs.org/pharmaceuticals/drug-delivery/scientists-ambitious-plan-Engineer-breast/97/i9.
  8. University of California – Davis. “Goats’ milk with antimicrobial lysozyme speeds recovery from diarrhea.” ScienceDaily, 13 March 2013, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130313182140.htm.
  9. Runge, Kristin. “How much dairy does the average American consume in a year?” Wisconsin State Journal, 23 Jun. 2017, https://madison.com/wsj/business/how-much-dairy-does-the-average-american-consume-in-a/article_5f1e4abf-4442-548e-991d-f93e8afae95a.html.

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