lab-grown breast milk

Creating the first lab-grown human breastmilk?

US startup BIOMILQ has just announced it “may have created” lab-grown human breastmilk directly from isolated human mammary cells. This may spell the beginning of the end for infant formula, and a new beginning for much other lactation research. 

Michelle Egger and Leila Strickland are the founders of BIOMILQ, and they’re on a mission to provide the next generation every opportunity to thrive.

Their announcement has been made with understatement — they don’t want to make false promises. They haven’t created a full replacement for breastmilk yet, after all, just a cultured version that contains two of the major components of the original: lactose and casein.

They take the presence of these two major components to mean that they are on the way to creating milk nutritionally-equivalent to breastmilk. 

This is no small matter. Breastmilk is still widely considered the best way to feed babies, especially for the first six months of their lives, but many parents don’t have that option for a variety of personal and practical reasons. The popular alternative is infant formula, which has many benefits but can be a challenging adjustment for infants’ digestive systems because it relies on non-human proteins, often from cows’ milk but sometimes from hydrolyzed soy.

BIOMILQ wants to become the next best thing when a newborn can’t be fed natural breastmilk — as digestible as human milk but as practical as infant formula.

Further tests are forthcoming, which could take the may out of the next announcement. However, BIOMILQ isn’t the only company working towards lab-based breastmilk.

A day after their announcement, Singapore-based biotech start-up TurtleTree Labs announced that it would be presenting its own lab-grown mother’s milk to the public this US spring. Other companies have announced similar ambitions. All the more reason for us to talk to these two vanguards of the cultured breastmilk revolution.

Since this is their first extensive interview, we wanted to know: how did they get involved with the mad plan to create breastmilk in a lab? How did they do it scientifically? Why do it anyway? And what hurdles do they perceive in future, translating their findings out of a lab context into a general available product?

Combining forces

Egger and Strickland have been working together for just about half a year — they founded their company in September 2019 — and, judging by the results, their collaboration has taken off like wildfire. They arrived at the same interest from different disciplines, but with similar convictions. Above all, they shared a desire to use their scientific knowledge to tangibly benefit people, and both of them had settled independently on helping them from the earliest possible age.

Egger is a food scientist by training and worked for a number of years at General Mills, where she invented new processing techniques and did consumer insight work, working on organic foods like the famous LÄRABARs. In this context, she developed an interest in the daily decisions mothers make about their child’s nutrition.

This led to her starting an MBA at Duke University with an emphasis on social impact entrepreneurship, specifically food insecurity, malnutrition and global food systems. Last summer, she worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researching “affordable plant-based protein sources for low-and-middle-income countries,” which deepened her interest in early childhood nutrition.

“During that summer at the Gates Foundation, I realised that the age at which I really appreciate kids — at three years old, when they have more of a personality — it was too late to help them. If we want to help the world, if we want to see babies grow up to be healthy, strong, capable adults, we have to be there from the moment they’re born. Breastmilk is a huge part of that.”

That summer also exposed her to breastmilk substitutes, and the politics of formula suppliers, which she says, “value sales over the benefits of children.”

Egger knew breastmilk was the answer to setting every person on the right nutritional path, but it was also the problem.

Biomilq founders of lab-grown human breastmilk
Egger and Strickland, founders of BIOMILQ.

By the end of that summer, Egger felt deflated. “I realised that even the Gates Foundation, working with the largest multinationals in the world, couldn’t move fast enough. The first 1000 days in a baby’s life are so vitally important to set the nutrition fundamentals that they will carry on throughout the rest of their life, affecting all their cognitive and physical abilities. For every year or two that it took us longer to try to get a project moving, millions of children around the globe were falling behind.”  

Egger knew breastmilk was the answer to setting every person on the right nutritional path, but it was also the problem. A new alternative to breastmilk was needed.

Serendipitously, this is precisely when she met her BIOMILQ co-founder Leila Strickland. The cellular biologist had been interested in growing breastmilk in a lab for some time, and had also arrived at this interest from a combination of professional and personal investments. After getting her postdoc at Stanford in cellular biology, Strickland had two children; both were born prematurely and she had trouble breastfeeding them. This kicked off a search for alternatives. She knew there had to be a better option.

She found inspiration in cellular agriculture. Seeing Mark Post serve the first lab-grown burger at a press conference in 2013 was one such milestone.

“It was pretty groundbreaking just in terms of my own thinking about what we could use the stuff of cell culture to accomplish.” Strickland started working on technology to produce milk from cultured cells, with the help of her husband. She pursued this ambition “at times as a garage hobby, in the grand tradition of tinkering, and at times as a full-throttle, furious pursuit of nothing less than the betterment of our health and our planet.” 

Cellular agriculture non-profit New Harvest provided invaluable intellectual support. “They were really the first people who looked at us like we weren’t crazy,” Strickland recalls a meeting in 2015. “They were excited about our work. We had a super-invigorating call with Isha [Datar], and then attended the first New Harvest conference. They’ve been such an important influence on the field, and we made good connections there. We’ve continued the conversation with them ever since.” 

“We aspire to produce a cultured, human-milk product that offers families a new option for feeding babies — one that’s nutritionally equivalent to breastmilk and cultivated under safe conditions using our first-of-its-kind technology,” they write.

“That’s why we’re so excited to share that the results from our proof-of-concept experiments are in — we can confirm that our samples contain the predominant protein and sugar components found in breastmilk!” Read the full article here