A North Carolina startup called BIOMILQ may have whipped up a nutritionally comparable alternative to human breast milk — except this milk isn’t produced in a mammary gland, but in a bioreactor.
For parents who can’t breastfeed or who adopted or used surrogates, having another option for their children besides formula milk could be a game-changer. It’s also very common for women to not be able to produce enough breast milk on their own.
Co-founder and chief science officer of BIOMILQ, Leila Strickland, ran into her own issues with producing enough milk when she was a new mom in 2009.
“Because I was so unprepared for it, I found it really isolating. I felt like there was something wrong with me,” Strickland told The Guardian.
So when Strickland heard about the first lab-grown burger, developed in 2013, she set her sights on adapting that technology to culture milk-producing cells.
“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,” Strickland said of her startup’s process.
The “women-owned, science-led and mother-centered” startup was founded in 2020 and has since garnered the attention of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who owns a US$3.5-million stake in the company.
Strickland told CNN that it will still take another three to five years before the first BIOMILQ product hits the market. In the meantime, the startup needs to scale up its production and lower costs, as well as convince regulators to clear its product for safe consumption.
“There isn’t really a regulatory framework that exists,” Strickland says.
But if the product does succeed in getting government approval, BIOMILQ could have a wide-ranging impact on the formula milk industry and infant nutrition.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two out of every three infants don’t receive the recommended amount of breast milk in their first six months. These low rates are thanks in part to the milk substitute industry, which often uses misleading marketing tactics to persuade parents to use formula milk.
The WHO maintains that “breastmilk is the ideal food for infants” so that children can develop with the necessary nutrition and antibodies needed to grow healthy and strong. Studies show that children who are breastfed perform better on intelligence tests and are at lower risk for diabetes and obesity.
Formula milk is often based on cow’s milk and while it does provide a lot of nutrition for infants, it lacks “the complexity of human milk,” Strickland says.
In comparison, BIOMILQ’s nutritional profile closely resembles that of human milk and has similar proportions of proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
BIOMILQ creates lab-grown human milk from donated breast tissue and milk cells from women in their local community. The team then grows the donated cells in flasks by feeding them nutrients, and then incubates them in a bioreactor where the cells absorb even more nutrients.
The bioreactor is meant to mimic the environment of a breast and once a “milk-producing cell culture media” is pumped through the reactor, the cells begin to secrete milk.
Even though BIOMILQ is made with human tissue, experts say that it still won’t be as good as regular breast milk. Natalie Shenker, a fellow at Imperial College London, says that regular breast milk also includes fatty acids and hormones that contribute to brain development, and which come from the mother’s blood.
BIOMILQ is very explicit about not wanting to replace breastfeeding, saying on its website, “we wouldn’t dream of it.”
Instead, its mission is “empowering parents with a new option for supplemental feeding — one that’s as close to breastmilk as possible.”