By Milly Chan
Breast milk is the perfect food for babies, but not all mothers are able to breastfeed, and with adoption or surrogacy, parents don’t have this option.
Enter BIOMILQ – a North Carolina-based startup that is working to create “human milk” outside of the body.
From burgers to breasts
The idea first came to BIOMILQ Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer Leila Strickland in 2013, after she heard about the world’s first lab-grown burger. A cell biologist by training, Strickland wondered if similar technology could be used to culture human milk-producing cells, she told CNN Business.
Strickland, who had struggled to produce enough breast milk for her first child, noted: “A lot of women are grappling with this.”
Globally, only one in three babies receives as much breast milk in their first six months as experts recommend, says the World Health Organisation. Instead, many parents rely on formula. The milk formula industry was worth over $ 52 billion in 2021, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.
Often based on powdered cow’s milk, milk formula is “able to satisfy a lot of the nutritional requirements”, Strickland said, but it cannot replicate “the complexity of human milk”. Strickland says BIOMILQ’s product, by comparison, better matches the nutritional profile of breast milk than formula, with more similar proportions of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
The BIOMILQ team creates its product from cells taken from human breast tissue and milk, donated by women in the local community, who get a Target gift card in return. BIOMILQ grows the cells in flasks, feeding them nutrients, and then incubates them in a bioreactor that mimics the environment in a breast. Here, the cells absorb more nutrients and secrete milk components.
BIOMILQ is still three to five years away from getting a product to market, Strickland says. First, the startup needs to grow mammary cells at a much larger scale – and at a lower cost. BIOMILQ also needs to convince regulators that the product is safe for babies, a task that is especially challenging for a new food category like lab-grown human milk products.
“There isn’t really a regulatory framework that exists,” Strickland stated.
No magic formula
Even if BIOMILQ gets that far, human milk that comes from a bioreactor won’t have exactly the same health benefits as milk that comes from a breast, according to Natalie Shenker, a fellow at Imperial College London and Co-Founder of the Human Milk Foundation, which helps provide donor milk to families that need it.
Fatty acids, which help brain development and growth, and hormones such as cortisol, which helps develop the baby’s sleep cycle, come from the mother’s blood, says Shenker.
Lactation consultant Courtney Miller, who supports breastfeeding mothers, agrees that cell-cultured milk is not a “replacement for breast milk”. But she thinks it could offer parents “another choice”, particularly when adoption or surrogacy is involved.
“Formula right now is their only option, unless they are able to do breast milk donation,” Miller stated. Accessing donor milk can be difficult. In the US, feeding a newborn with breast milk from a milk bank can cost up to $100 per day. Finding a donor online is often cheaper, but can come with safety concerns.
Miller also believes BIOMILQ can further the scientific study of breast milk. She has donated a few ounces of her own milk to the startup, in the hopes that its research can lead to new breakthroughs in infant nutrition.
A growth industry
BIOMILQ is not the only company hoping to create a new kind of milk for babies. Turtle Tree, based in Singapore and the US, is culturing stem cells to create milk components from a range of mammals, including humans, while New York-based Helaina is using microbial fermentation to grow proteins found in human milk.
By taking dairy farming out of the equation, BIOMILQ says its product could make feeding babies more environmentally sustainable. Producing 1 kg of packaged formula creates between seven and 11 kg of carbon dioxide, according to one estimate. BIOMILQ is still running studies into its own carbon footprint.
The promise of a greener alternative to formula has attracted investment from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Alongside other investors, the climate-focused fund helped BIOMILQ raise $ 21 million in October 2021. With this funding, Strickland says BIOMILQ is focused on expanding, and making more milk.
“We consider ourselves now in our second trimester,” she stated.