A startup has begun producing breast milk made from cell cultures, as an alternative to formula for those struggling to breastfeed
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Spotted: As almost all American parents of infants are aware, there is currently a huge shortage of infant formula. Caused by a temporary shutdown of the US’s main formula producer, the situation has driven many parents to despair. While breast milk is the ideal food for infants, it is not always possible or practical to breastfeed – for various reasons. Now one company, BIOMILQ, is hoping to offer parents the best of both worlds – lab-grown ‘real’ breast milk.
Cell biologist Dr. Leila Strickland came up with the idea for BIOMILQ while she was struggling to breastfeed her own newborn. Struggling to produce enough milk, she turned to formula. Although the choice was the right one, she also realised that it was not ideal, as formula does not have the perfect nutritional composition for babies. Eleven years later, Strickland worked out how to culture breast cells in a lab and collect the milk they secrete.
BIOMILQ refers to its process as, ‘the mother of all patented technology’. The company began, in true startup fashion, in a rented lab space with used equipment sourced from eBay. Initial experiments involved cow udders. But the nascent company had no budget to test if cells were really producing milk and Strickland gave up her lab after a few years, in 2016. Then, in 2019, she decided to try again, this time with the support of Michelle Egger, who had worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The pair had a commercial lab run a proof-of-concept experiment which showed that the cells were producing the same proteins and sugars found in human breast milk.
Following this success, Bill Gates bought a $3.5 million stake in the company in 2021, which will allow it to scale up the process. Strickland explains the process, saying, “We start with these amazing cells that line a woman’s mammary gland. Using the same techniques that we’ve used for decades to grow cells outside the body, we’re able to reproduce the behaviour these cells have evolved over millions of years, to produce components in quantities that match the baby’s needs.”
To produce its breast milk, BIOMILQ uses similar techniques to those used to grow other cell-based foods, such as cultured meat and dairy. Donated breast tissue and milk cells are fed nutrients and incubated in a bioreactor. Springwise has been following the cultured food industry with great interest, as well as similar innovations such as fats produced through fermentation.
Written By: Lisa Magloff