The race to grow human breast milk in the lab


The race to grow human breast milk in the lab

Every mother wants to give their baby the best. Could lab grown breast milk replace formula in the future..

Dr Leila Strickland became a mother when she was a few months away from completing her postdoctorate fellowship in cell biology at Stanford University. She spent the first three months of her son’s life “at home on maternity leave, relentlessly struggling to breastfeed. I was having a hard time producing enough milk.” She never expected to find feeding her baby a greater challenge than advanced cytology.

“My mom breastfed me and my sister until we were over two years old. All my life, I’d fully embraced the proposition that breast milk is the best nutrition for a baby, and that this is what I would feed my baby.” Lactation consultants, paediatricians and well-meaning friends told her to just keep trying. “Because I was so unprepared for it, I found it really isolating. I felt like there was something wrong with me.”

Eventually – reluctantly – Strickland decided to bottle-feed her baby with formula. “It was convenient and practical, and made it possible for me to get more sleep, and for my husband to participate. In some ways I was able to be a better mom, and I was a lot happier, but I knew I was making a trade-off. I knew the product my child was getting was optimal for raising cows, that it didn’t have the ideal nutrient composition. It was good enough – but what mom is happy with good enough?”

Eleven years later, Strickland has combined her experiences as both a stressed mother and a cell biologist in a way that could change how we feed our babies for ever: she has worked out how to make human breast milk without the human breast. Her startup, Biomilq, cultures breast cells in a lab – farming them outside the body – and collects the milk they secrete. The company calls it “the mother of all patented technology” and it has caught the eye of Bill Gates, who bought a $3.5m (£2.7m) stake in Biomilq in June. Potentially, it could end the infant formula industry as we know it.

While the science shows breast is best – helping cement the emotional connection between mother and child; providing optimal nutrition, antibodies and bacteria; reducing the risk of obesity and diabetes in adulthood – breastfeeding can be a lottery. Many women find it straightforward and rewarding, but for others it is painful and demoralising. Sometimes babies have tongue-tie and wont latch on, or the mother has mastitis, or doesn’t produce enough milk for the baby to put on the weight required to satisfy ever-watchful midwives and health visitors. Sometimes the baby is premature, or ill, and needs to be fed through a tube, or the mother is embarrassed about feeding in public, or needs to go back to work. Faced with these challenges, the most determined mothers might express milk with a pump; but pumping can be a time-consuming and often wretched experience.

For three years, I just had a really expensive science hobby that most people in my life thought was extremely weird

The other alternative is formula. But, as Strickland says, it is a trade-off. Although their composition has improved, infant formulas are generally made from cow’s milk and therefore have sugars, proteins and fats best suited to calves. Human milk contains hormones, antibodies and friendly bacteria, as well as unique proteins and sugars. Formula also has a substantial carbon footprint; it is made from products that depend on dairy farming, or the cultivation of palm oil or soy. There’s also the shame many mothers feel after they turn to the bottle: women who use formula after struggling with breastfeeding have been shown to experience greater levels of guilt than mothers who chose not to breastfeed from the start.

Founded in January 2020, Biomilq boasts that it is “women-owned, science-led and mother-centred”. Strickland is juggling running the lab with homeschooling her two children through lockdown; in our video call from her house in North Carolina, she is casually dressed in a sweatshirt, and I can hear the sound of plates being knocked off tables in far-off rooms as we speak.

Growing food in a lab is called “cellular agriculture” and Strickland describes her work as if it were a kind of farming. “We start with these amazing cells that line a woman’s mammary gland,” she explains. “Using the same techniques that we’ve used for decades to grow cells outside the body, we’re able to reproduce the behaviour these cells have evolved over millions of years, to produce components in quantities that match the baby’s needs.”

The breast milk Strickland produces in her lab is different from the milk that comes out of a human breast. It can’t change in response to a baby’s needs, as milk from a breast can (for example, being diluted on hotter days when the baby needs more fluids); it contains no hormones or bacteria from the mother’s biome. Most significantly, it has no antibodies, because these are imported into the milk from the mother’s blood, which disembodied cells can’t do. “That’s a part of breast milk we won’t be able to replicate,” Strickland says, matter-of-factly.

She can afford to be relaxed about this, because Biomilq’s market research suggests babies who drink their product will be getting breastfed anyway, and given Biomilq as a supplement. “Those babies will be getting the antibodies from their own mother, then they will be getting a breast milk with a very similar composition when she’s not able to breastfeed – if she wants to go back to work, say, or sleep through the night.” Their mission statement says their product is for women who “need a little boost”. Their target consumer is someone who is determined to breastfeed, but can’t. Just like Strickland was.

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Article source: 14th November 2020