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Sheep’s milk goes viral in new pasture

Scientists from the University of Waikato and biotech firm Ruakura Technologies have been working together to formulate a sheep’s milk product that can enhance the human immune system against viral illnesses – hyperimmune milk.

At the start of the pandemic, a team of the university’s protein engineers spent time brainstorming with dairy biotechnologists from Ruakura Technologies on approaches to make large quantities of protective antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus disease [covid-19], immunologist Dr William Kelton said.

The new product – which acts similarly to colostrum – is the first time immunologists in New Zealand have developed a hyperimmune milk with sheep’s milk.

Kelton told the Times-Age that the team of research scientists created a unique approach by using elements from the immune system of sheep to further enhance the production of milk antibodies.

“Ruminant animals naturally produce lots of antibodies in their milk, and we landed on the idea of immunising a flock of sheep to direct the antibody responses against the virus,” Kelton said.

“Together, we obtained strong proof-of-principle results in our first trial, and we’re now looking to expand the technology to target other viruses like norovirus.”

In their first trial, scientists found that sheep’s milk contains high levels of antibodies that act against covid-19.

However, Kelton said that not all antibodies are created equal, and their studies have shown that a substantial fraction of the antibodies they are making have neutralising properties.

Fernglen Farm’s prebiotic flavoured sheep milk.

In other words, this means that the antibodies can bind to the virus in places that hamper binding to the surface of cells – thereby limiting their ability to infect the cells.

Looking forward, Kelton envisions the hyperimmune milk will be supplied in small sachets of dried milk powder containing high levels of active antibodies to fight off a virus, while also adding value to the dairy sector by moving “beyond the model of commodity milk powder production.

“Once reconstituted, the milk can simply be drunk. The idea is that the antibodies will help neutralise viruses in the mouth and, in the case of norovirus, in the gastrointestinal tract,” Kelton said.

Meanwhile, Fernglen Farm – a local sheep milking business located on Wairarapa’s coast – is no stranger to understanding the nutritional benefits of consuming sheep’s milk.

With around 60 per cent more protein and calcium compared to cow or goat milk, Fernglen Farm’s Cameron Ravenwood said sheep’s milk is packed full of essential amino acids, which has a different fat and protein structure that allows it to be digested more easily by humans – even if people have cow milk sensitivity.

Fernglen Farm – the first dairy farm in the country to receive the SPCA Animal Welfare Certification – is betting on sheep milk consumption in New Zealand continuing to grow and providing more opportunities within the agricultural sector.

“From an environmental perspective,” Ravenwood said, “sheep being small in size don’t generally cause soil damage in the form of pugging, and urine patches are smaller, which makes for a lower chance of nitrate leaching into the waterways because the soil can better handle the amount.”

  • To find out more about Fernglen Farm, visit www. fernglenfarm.co.nz

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