According to the World Health Organization, breast milk is an important source of nutrients and energy for babies, protects against digestive tract infections, helps reduce the risk of obesity, and improves health later IQ score and many other benefits.
For mothers who cannot breastfeed but still want to provide breastmilk to their babies, the options are limited. Dairy banks are not available in every country or city, and accounts for delivery on Facebook, Craigslist and other online platforms are not tightly regulated.
Fengru Lin is trying to find a way to solve this problem. In January 2019, Lin founded TurtleTree Labs, a Singapore-based startup trying to process breast milk in a lab.
The company started with stem cells derived from donor breast milk, multiplying before introducing them into the growth fluid inside a hollow fiber bioreactor.
“Imagine a giant steel cup with hundreds and thousands of small perforated straws,” Lin said.
There, the cells differentiate into cells of the mammary gland and begin to produce milk. This whole process takes three weeks, and the mammary gland cells can release milk in about 200 days, Lin said.
It’s a technique that, theoretically, can be used to get milk from any mammal, as long as stem cells are available. TurtleTree has successfully produced full-component cow’s milk from stem cells in freshly milked cow’s milk. Lin got the idea of producing cow’s milk from stem cells out of a passion for cheese making.
Hollow fiber bioreactor
Currently, the company plans to do the same for breast milk. “We’re not trying to replace breastfeeding, which is something we fully support,” Lin said.
Reasons why mothers cannot breastfeed
More than 80% of new mothers in the US and UK start breastfeeding, but only 1/2 and 1/3 respectively do so until the baby is six months old. Globally, this figure is 37%.
Various reasons are given: some struggle to produce enough milk, while others return to work when it is not convenient to suck and store it. Many people also find that pumping is physically painful, with mastitis, cracked nipples and other sharp pains.
In addition, there are mothers who use drugs or are undergoing treatment that makes breastfeeding become unsafe for their babies. And sometimes, babies can be born prematurely or suckle too weakly.
Weaknesses of formula milk
While formula has come a long way, especially over the past two decades, it still lacks many of the nutrients found in breast milk. This is largely because infant formulas are made from cow’s milk, not breast milk.
“Both contain almost the same molecule but the proportions are different,” said Alan Kelly, a food scientist at University College Cork in Ireland. And the difference in those ratios is physiologically significant. ”
“The mineral content in cow’s milk is much higher and its protein content is much higher (3.5% versus 1% in human milk),” he said, while the carbohydrate level is significantly lower (about 4.5%). compared with 7%). It is important to have a group of complex carbohydrates that are only found in breast milk. ”
“Today, oligosaccharides are known to play a huge role in infant development, such as fighting infections,” Kelly said. Infant formula can be modified to narrow some of these differences, but it cannot completely replicate breast milk. ”
Since formula milk uses cow’s milk as its starting material, the environmental costs of its production are also significant. It is estimated that about 4,700 liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of powdered milk. The recipe also often contains palm oil, which has a large carbon footprint.
Advantages of laboratory processing breast milk
In contrast, laboratory processed breast milk has the potential to alleviate some of these problems. Michelle Egger – co-founder of North Carolina-based startup BioMilq, which is also looking to process breastmilk in the lab – said:
“Part of it is that we have become more concerned with sustainability, the other is because we now have a better understanding of the different types of cell agriculture. For others, it’s hard to believe. But for us it’s just about applying science in a way that can help more women. ”
While both Biomilq and TurtleTree Labs – each of which has raised more than $ 3.5 million (more than $ 81 billion) – hope to generate breast milk, there are still some key biological differences between lab milk. and breast milk.
Biomilq is working directly on breast epithelial cells rather than stem cells and aims to sell milk directly to consumers, in the gas TurtleTree plans to license its technology to public dairy companies. great formula.
Weaknesses of laboratory processing breast milk
However, milk from the lab cannot reproduce the hundreds of proteins and more than 200 oligosaccharides, the myriad hormones, fats and beneficial bacteria in breast milk.
These laboratory non-renewable ingredients are critical for the development of kidneys, cell membranes and the immune system, helping to keep fluid and electrolyte levels stable. At the same time, breast milk is adjusted based on maternal and baby genetics, habitat, geography, season, and even temperature during the day.
Economically, companies must find ways to reduce production costs to make milk affordable. Scaling also comes with technical difficulties.
According to Kelly, figuring out how to store the end product is also key. Pasteurization, freezing or dehydration can change some of the milk’s ingredients and “lose some of its advantages”.
Safety testing is another major hurdle companies face. In terms of morality, it is difficult to conduct clinical trials in the presence of young children. Since lab-processed breastmilk is a whole new field, regulators must find a way to classify and create official (currently non-existent) breastmilk standards.