Lab-made 'human' breast milk may soon be an option for parents who can't breastfeed but don't want to use formula
- Biomilq is a company trying to create a lab-grown equivalent of breast milk.
- Founders Michelle Egger, a food scientist, and Leila Strickland, a cell biologist, announced in February they had successfully created the central protein and sugar components in breast milk.
- While they don't aim to replace breast milk, they hope the future product will be "nutritionally equivalent" to it and better than formula.
- One June 16, the team announced it had raised $3.5 million from Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures to continue their work.
When Leila Strickland was pregnant with her first child, she worried about the impending labor and delivery.
But thoughts about what would happen after that — like
"I had the expectation that that this is something of course my body would be able to do," Strickland, a cell biologist in North Carolina, told Insider.
In reality, her son was born early, he had trouble latching, and she struggled to stimulate enough milk. She ended up "pumping constantly" and felt beat down by messaging that if breastfeeding didn't come easily, she just had to try harder.
"Being unable to do this really critical thing that I hadn't anticipated struggling with and that I knew was super important really affected how I felt about myself as a woman and as a mother," Strickland said.
Now, about 10 years later, Strickland and food scientist Michelle Egger are aiming to help new moms with breastfeeding challenges by giving them what they say is an option that's superior to formula: Lab-grown breast milk.
While the product is still in development, they believe the components they've created so far are enough to get them there in the near future. The pair has now raised $3.5 million to accelerate the journey of Biomilq, their startup.
Securing the funding in the midst of a pandemic was challenging, but necessary, Egger said, because babies need to eat, global crisis or not. "No matter what else changes," she said, "infant nutrition is still going to be fundamentally important for generations to come."
Strickland and Egger say they've created the two main components in breast milk
Though Strickland has been growing mammary cells in a lab since 2013, she didn't partner with Egger and launch Biomilq until last year.
In February, they announced they had reached a pivotal step in achieving their goal of creating a cultured breast milk that's "nutritionally equivalent" to the real thing. They had proven, they wrote on Medium, that their lab-grown mammary cells made the two key components of breast milk: lactose and casein.
"We are the first company to produce vital components of milk together within the same system using a process that is sterile from start to finish and free of all contamination," they wrote. "Most importantly, this innovation allows us to create the full constellation of complex components in perfect proportion."
When the coronavirus hit, they focused what could be done remotely: hiring and seeking investors.
They were successful. On June 16, the pair announced they'd secured $3.5 million from investors with environmental and infant
While the timing of the product's release will depend largely on regulatory bodies like the US Food and Drug Administration, Egger said, the funding should quicken that and other processes including technology development and discussions with doctors, lactation consultants, parents, and other infant nutrition experts.
Cultured breast milk aims to mimic many of the qualities of human-made breast milk
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend babies exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life. The guidance is based on extensive research showing that breastfeeding is linked to a host of physical and mental health benefits for both the birthing parent and baby.
Breast milk's changing makeup, for example, helps protect babies from issues like childhood leukemia and obesity, and is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers in the birthing parent. The process of breastfeeding, too, has its own benefits, including helping a new parent heal from childbirth and encouraging bonding between the parent and infant.
Formula — while "a safe, relatively affordable, thoughtfully designed, rigorously tested, and continually improving" alternative, according to pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin — can't replicate all of those benefits since it's not made from human-made. Instead, it comes from cows, plants, or both.
Plus, formula can be harder for the baby to digest and doesn't adapt to the infant's changing needs like breastmilk, according to the US Department of Health and Human Service's Office on Women's Health.
Biomilq's founders don't claim their future product will be identical to breast milk in every way — it won't morph to a specific baby's needs or offer the same protections for a baby's immune system — but they do expect it to produce all 2,500-some components of human breast milk since a single cell, the human mammary epithelial cell, produces them all.
Because they've proven their lab-grown mammary cell produce lactose and casein, they have reason to believe the cells will produce everything else.
Pediatric health experts and moms see promise in the product, with some drawbacks
Clare Rager, a mom in Cambridge Massachusetts who breastfed her now 10-month-old for the first four months, though it was painful, told Insider her initial reaction to cultured breast milk was, "that's really cool, I'm totally on board."
She thinks it could especially come in handy for dads, non-biological parents, or parents whose babies have food allergies and can't tolerate breast milk after their birthing parent has eaten that allergen. She wouldn't choose it over human breastmilk, though, due to its inability to transmit antibodies and build up the baby's immune system.
Fradin, the pediatrician, told Insider she's optimistic about Biomilq's ability to mimic many of components of breastmilk, saying that "the potential health benefits to infants could be substantial."
But a downside, at least when compared to human breastmilk, is the inability to reformulate itself to a baby's needs, she said. "This customization [in human milk] likely helps give preterm babies denser calories and dehydrated babies more water," Fradin said. "Even within the same day, milk produced in the evening varies from that produced in the morning."
Lab-grown breast milk also won't be able to reflect the birthing parent's diet, something that may help develop babies' palates.
"Aiming for something nutritionally equivalent [to breastmilk] is a noble and worthwhile goal. I expect the product will not reach that standard," Fradin said. "However, even if it falls short, it could be an improvement over standard formulas."
Heather Guith, a Washington, DC, mom to an 1-and-a-half-year-old for whom nursing "mostly worked out," told Insider she's skeptical it will be even that. She said she'd only choose it if it were priced similarly to formula — which Egger says it will be, at least eventually — or if her baby had a condition that didn't allow them to digest formulas.
"Otherwise, I think it's marketing itself as something it's not and making really great parents feel bad about using formula because there might be a 'better' option."
Biomilq doesn't aim to replace breast milk or formula
Leiland and Egger maintain that they're not trying to replace breast milk or formula.
Instead, they want to introduce another option into a decision that has thus far been mostly binary: breastfeed or use infant formula. (A third option, using donor milk, is expensive and limited when accessed via a doctor's prescription, and unregulated when accessed via a black market.)
"We have had the same two solutions for like a hundred years now ... and breastfeeding is wonderful, but it's not always the best option for everyone. And moms deserve better moms and families deserve better," Egger said.
"I think pretty much everyone is in agreement that the most important thing is to get fundamental nutrition right for an infant," she said. "And if we have a new tool in our toolbelt that's able to get us there faster or better than the existing options that are sold in the market today, then everyone should be wholeheartedly excited about it."
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