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BIOMILQ creates “breast milk” for babies in a lab

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Enter: BIOMILQ. The North Carolina-based startup is working to create “human milk” outside of the body.
The idea first came to co-founder and chief scientific officer Leila Strickland in 2013, after hearing about the world’s first lab-grown burger. A cell biologist by training, Strickland wondered if similar technology could be used to grow human milk-producing cells, she told CNN Business.

Strickland had struggled to produce enough breast milk for her first child. “A lot of women struggle with this,” she says.

Globally, only one in three babies gets as much breast milk in their first six months as experts recommend, according to the World Health Organization. Instead, many parents rely on formula. The formula industry was worth more than $52 billion in 2021, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.

Often made from powdered cow’s milk, formula is “capable of meeting a large portion of nutritional needs,” says Strickland, but it cannot replicate “the complexity of breast milk.” Strickland says BIOMILQ’s product, by comparison, matches the nutritional profile of breast milk better than formula, with more similar proportions of protein, carbohydrates and fat.

The BIOMILQ team creates its product from cells taken from human breast tissue and milk, donated by women in the local community, who in return receive a Target gift card. BIOMILQ grows cells in flasks, feeds them nutrients, then incubates them in a bioreactor that mimics the environment of a breast. Here the cells absorb more nutrients and secrete milk components.

BIOMILQ still has three to five years before bringing a product to market, Strickland says. First, the startup needs to develop breast cells on a much larger scale — and at a lower cost. BIOMILQ must also convince regulators that the product is safe for babies, a particularly difficult task for a new food category like lab-grown breastmilk products.

“There really isn’t a regulatory framework that exists,” Strickland says.

No magic formula

Even if BIOMILQ goes this far, breast 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 in need.

Fatty acids, which aid in brain development and growth, and hormones such as cortisol, which help develop the baby’s sleep cycle, come from the mother’s blood, Shenker says.

Not all components of breast milk can be replicated in a bioreactor, experts say.

Lactation consultant Courtney Miller, who supports breastfeeding mothers, agrees that cell culture milk is not a “breastmilk replacement”. But she thinks it could offer parents “another choice”, especially when it comes to adoption or surrogacy.

“Formula milk is their only option right now, unless they’re able to donate breast milk,” Miller says. Access to donor milk can be difficult. In the United States, feeding a newborn with breast milk from a milk bank can cost up to $100 a day. Finding a donor online is often cheaper, but can pose security issues.

Miller also believes BIOMILQ can further the scientific study of breast milk. She donated a few ounces of her own milk to the startup, in hopes her research could lead to new breakthroughs in infant nutrition.

A growing industry

BIOMILQ isn’t the only company hoping to create a new type of baby milk. Singapore- and US-based Turtle Tree cultivates stem cells to create milk components from a range of mammals, including humans, while New York-based Helaina uses microbial fermentation to develop proteins found in breast milk.
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By taking dairy farming out of the equation, BIOMILQ says its product could make feeding babies more environmentally sustainable. The production of one kilogram of packaged formula creates between seven and 11 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to an estimate. BIOMILQ always conducts studies on its own carbon footprint.
The promise of a greener alternative to the formula has attracted investment from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Along with 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 producing more milk. “We now consider ourselves in our second trimester,” she says.

— Rachel Crane contributed to this article.