A new sheep’s milk product fortified with enhanced immune protection against viral illnesses has been developed by a team of scientists at Waikato University in collaboration with biotech firm Ruakura Technologies.
The new hyperimmune milk acts similarly to colostrum, University of Waikato applied immunologist Dr William Kelton says.
The milk is being developed by Kelton in collaboration with structural biologist Dr Adele Williamson, and biotech innovators Ruakura Technologies (RuaTech).
The science mimics nature and can be compared to the way a mother’s milk protects a newborn baby.
Kelton says they developed a proof of concept for the milk in 2021 with the aim of creating a product to enhance protection against covid-19.
“At the height of the covid-19 pandemic we demonstrated we could produce specific antibodies in sheep milk to aid the human immune response to coronavirus.
“We did our proof of concept that showed it worked really well.”
The product starts with the development of artificial components to mimic the outer protein or antigen of a virus of interest. This “smart antigen” is administered to sheep to stimulate an immune response that then naturally produces antibodies that carry into its milk.
Antibodies are produced by the body to neutralise invading viruses. Hyperimmune milk can then be used as a supplement to bolster humans against a specific disease-causing virus.
The technology could provide an early rapid response intervention for new viruses. Kelton believes using this technique could be used to tailor make the milk to target specific viruses.
“This is a stage when vaccinations and medical treatments are still being developed and we know from covid-19 that the ability to provide early treatments will be a game-changer.
“Hyperimmune milk is a nutraceutical. A health supplement will never take the place of a vaccine, but unlike a vaccine, it’s much easier to adapt a milk product, as a virus adapts.”
It could be consumed possibly as a tablet or packaged as a compressed colostrum sachet that is reconstituted and consumed as a drink.
Sheep’s milk is already a high-end product, selling as much as $15-$18/L, and with colostrum-based products selling as much as $1000/kg it has huge added value potential, he says.
“What we are proposing is that in the course of a normal dairy season, you would capture two weeks of milk production – just after lambing, but you make sure the lambs get colostrum – and then your season would go as it normally would.”
The milk at that stage has a high number of antibodies. This ensures the milk will have a high level of bioactivity against the virus the milk is targeting once developed and could be extracted for a huge amount of value equal to the amount collected for the remainder of the milking season, he says.
That small amount of milk was more than enough to create the product.
“You only need in the tens of milligrams in that range of antibodies to provide a reasonable dose. We think you can take this really high value add cut during production, especially when antibody levels are so high.”
With the world moving on from covid, Kelton says they have shifted their focus to creating a product that produces greater immunity from the norovirus.
“It worked really well for covid, so we’re quite encouraged.”
Norovirus is a gastro-intestinal virus, and outbreaks are known for ripping through settings like age-care facilities, early childhood centres and cruise ships.
The process is similar to that of the covid immune milk where the number of antibodies specific to norovirus is increased.
“There’s different types of antibodies and we want to bias the milk to produce those that specifically function in the parts of the human body associated with the disease – so in the case of norovirus we want to up the numbers of IgA antibodies that work best in the human gastro-intestinal tract.”
He estimates this product is still at least two years away from possible commercialisation.
Currently, the research is focusing on sheep’s milk only. This is mostly for practical reasons because sheep are easier to handle than cows.
“Nonetheless we are exploring the design of our antigens in bovine systems. We’re definitely interested in that but the proof of concept is in dairy sheep at the moment.”
The technology could also be used in the veterinary health sector as a possible alternative to vaccinations.
RuaTech chief executive Dr Grant Smolenski says they have had interest from several global animal health companies that want to use the technology in the creation of new, more effective, vaccines.
The company is also working on commercialising the product that enhanced protection from covid.