Researchers have found that Cleopatra might have been right all along - some of the chemicals found in milk could be very good for your skin. They may even speed up the healing of wounds.
The scientists are not suggesting people should follow the ancient Egyptian queen's example and take baths in milk. Instead they have extracted a few of the thousands of substances found in milk, and have found they can greatly speed up wound-healing in animals.
The extract will soon face its next major test to see if it speeds up the healing of wounds in humans as well.
If it passes that test, the scientists say the extract could eventually claim a world market worth anything up to $20 billion.
The project-a world first-is the brainchild of scientists from the CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition, who are now working closely with industry partners under the umbrella of the Cooperative Research Centre for Tissue Growth and Repair in Adelaide.
The scientists have extracted their wound-healing extract from the left-over liquid (whey) which remains when milk is turned into cheese. They say 1,000 litres of whey yields only about 30 grams of the precious powder.
The secret process for extracting the powder has been patented, and a pilot plant capable of processing some 2,000 litres of whey a day has now been commissioned at Werribee in Victoria. The Adelaide researchers are working closely on the project with dairy company Bonlac, and with the Highett Laboratory of the CSIRO's Division of Food Science and Technology in Victoria.
Project leader Dr David Belford, from the CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition, says the whey extract may eventually be included as a special healing agent in wound dressings, or as a wrinkle-remover in cosmetics - although such applications were still a fair way down the track, and depend on the success of human trials.
Dr Belford says the main ingredients which make the extract work as a healing agent are a cocktail of different "growth factors", purified from the whey.
Growth factors are naturally occurring chemicals which promote cell growth and skin repair, he says. The purified whey powder also contains other substances which boost the growth factor's healing powers.
Dr Belford says the world market potential for such a healing stimulant is enormous, perhaps as much as $10-20 billion. If the whey extract proves successful, he says, it will be the only substance of its kind in the world.
"There's nothing on the market which actually stimulates wound repair," he says.
However, Dr Belford emphasises that the extract still has to pass human clinical trials, and is unlikely to be commercially available before the end of the decade.
Dr Belford is now in the process of negotiating a clinical trial in Adelaide for the extracted whey powder. As part of the trial, the scientists plan to test whether the whey extract will speed the healing of patients with problem wounds such as diabetic ulcers, pressure sores and leg ulcers.