North Carolina-based start-up BIOMILQ recently announced that it has successfully made cell-grown breast milk from breast cells in a lab.
In the age of Impossible Burgers and 3D-printed meatless steaks, human breast milk made in the lab rather than in a woman’s breast really doesn’t seem that strange, frankly. The breakthrough announced by BIOMILK earlier this month has real potential to disrupt the infant and baby industries and impact the environment, as more than 10 percent of dairy is used to make baby food today. How the world reacts to breast milk made in the lab, on the other hand, is another matter.
Doctors often use the phrase “breast is best” when referring to infant formula, and the World Health Organization recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies until age six months, and include breast milk in their diet until age two. The health benefits for the babies are priceless, but unfortunately sometimes breastfeeding is not an option.
It is estimated that only a quarter of American mothers breastfeed exclusively for the recommended six months for a variety of reasons, including latching problems, insufficient milk supply, pain and discomfort. For them, formula is a convenient and flexible alternative that has helped billions of parents since it was invented, in 1865. But now a North Carolina-based startup aptly named BIOMILQ claims to have come up with an even better alternative: lab-made breast milk.
While undeniably helpful when breastfeeding isn’t possible, the formula lacks the complexity and immunity-boosting properties of breast milk, but the macronutrients present in BIOMILQ’s cell-cultured breast milk — proteins, complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, and other bioactive lipids — are said to closely resemble those. in breast milk. That said, the company has made it perfectly clear that it has no intention of letting its product replace the real thing.
“I told everyone who wanted to talk to me about BIOMILQ that I was doing this for mothers and babies,” said biologist Leila Strickland, co-founder and CSO. “Inspired by my personal experience of breastfeeding failure and a relentless hunch about the biology of milk biosynthesis, I believed that if someone gave me the chance to do this, maybe it would actually work.”
While it’s intriguing from lab-made breast milk alone, the folks at BIOMILQ insist that their product is not bio-identical to real breast milk, and they’re not confident it ever will.
“Hormonal changes, infant cues, skin-to-skin contact, and environment all influence the dynamic complexity of breast milk,” Strickland told Food Navigator, adding that their product also lacked antibodies, although it still “supported immune development, microbiome population, gut maturation and brain development in ways that bovine infant formulas basically cannot.”
While not perfect, BIOMILQ’s lab-made breast milk appears to be a more sustainable product than lab-grown meat because the company doesn’t have to constantly grow new cells. In fact, in a company statement, BIOMILQ states that “some of the cells we looked at can produce milk for months.”
BIOMILQ houses will have a product ready for commercialization in about a year and plan to spend that time talking to regulators about how their breast milk will be categorized.
“Is this a child food product, is this a milk product? It’s an interesting and challenging question that I don’t think we have a perfect answer to yet,” says Leila Strickland of BIOMILQ.
Meanwhile, mothers with breastfeeding problems can turn to super-producing moms, like this Oregon woman who donated 2.5 tons of her breast milk to families in need.