The market for dairy alternatives gains strength. Cellular agriculture is reaching a new consumer sector – young mothers.
Biomilq, a med startup, entered the race to produce human milk using cell cultures. Human mammary gland epithelial cells have been cultured in laboratories since the 1970s. Researchers use them in the biology of breast cancer, new drugs, and for growing viruses. But, only now have people come up with the idea of using them for what nature created them for, which is … the production of human milk.
A costly hobby
Leila Strickland, founder of Biomilq after the birth of her first son, thought only about whether she was producing enough milk. She was remorseful about feeding her baby formula. As a cell biologist, she asked herself: why can’t human milk be made in human cell cultures?
Together with her husband, they rented a small laboratory in Northern California and bought equipment on eBay for several thousand dollars. She initially obtained cow cells from udders purchased from a nearby slaughterhouse. The research proceeded slowly, but she optimized conditions enough to switch to a human cell line. When she recalls that time, she laughs that she had a costly hobby and sometimes had to choose whether to feed her children or her cells.
In 2016, she gave up and had to close the lab. But her friends did not give up. In 2019, a mutual friend introduced her to Michelle Egger, so a new era in Biomilq’s history began.
Michelle Egger had previously been a food technologist at General Mills and worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a project to improve the nutritional status of children in Third World countries. Working with malnourished children, she realized that nutritional intervention, when the children are three years old, is far too late.
Milk almost like the real thing
There are about as many cells in the Biomilq bioreactor as in the human mammary gland. Unlike a woman’s body, lactation in the bioreactor is not subject to natural mechanisms. Hormones inhibit milk production in a woman’s body to balance the baby’s need for milk and the mother’s energy costs. The cells in the bioreactor do not stop producing milk, and an uninterrupted stream of milk flows from the machinery.
In traditional cultures, the cells produce milk straight into the medium in which they are suspended. The product cannot be a mixture of milk and cell culture medium, so Biomilq had to solve the problem using a kind of compartmentalization. The solution is an innovation in the engineering and culture of mammary gland cells and is currently waiting for granting a patent.
“We use a new type of bioreactor with a flow system, so we do not have to separate the milk from the medium. The cells permanently adhere, receive nutrients from the bottom, and the milk formed in the upper part of the cell is immediately drained away.” says Charlotte Fron from Biomiq.
We have got the BIOMILQ!
On 1 June 2021, Biomilq announced that they had the results of their product composition profiling. The milk produced in their laboratory resembles the milk made in the mother’s breast regarding the proportion of proteins, complex polysaccharides, fats, and other bioactive lipids. BIOMILQ, unlike the mix, also contains polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which have an anti-inflammatory effect, thus participating in healthy child development. Cells from the bioreactor also produce a myriad of HMOs, including some recently linked to speech development in children.
However, the researchers stress that Biomilq is not identical to breast milk and never will be. Breastfeeding is a dynamic process. The composition of the milk is affected by hormone levels, signals from the baby’s body, skin-to-skin contact, and infections experienced by the mother. The advantage, however, is that thanks to production outside the woman’s body, under sterile conditions, the fluid is free of toxins and allergens from food and medicines taken by the mother.
The future of artificial milk
There is still a lot of work ahead for Biomilq. Before the product hits the shops, the startup faces scaling up production so that the product can compete on price with the formula anywhere in the world, plus intensive safety testing and product registration.
“We plan to release a personalized product in 2024 and a generic version a year later. We understand what an important and vulnerable consumer group infants are. So we are not rushing the R&D process to ensure quality and safety.” writes Charlotte Fron, Biomilq’s PR specialist, in an email correspondence.
We may soon find out whether human milk from alternative sources will win the trust of young parents and seriously threaten the huge baby formula market. What are your impressions about this idea?