On a summer day in 2013, Leila Strickland she watched raptly Mark Post unveil the first lab-grown hamburger: thousands of tissue culture plates filled with bovine stem cells, mixed with fetal calf serum and other nutrients, which differentiate into muscle cells.
Exciting, no doubt, but Leila Strickland's (Biomilq) mind was already wandering towards another potential application of cell culture: human breast milk. Like many of her mothers, Strickland had hoped to breastfeed both of her children for the first six months after their birth.
The medical establishment considers breastfeeding the gold standard of infant nutrition. Breast milk appears to reduce the likelihood of digestive problems, skin rashes and (especially) necrotizing enterocolitis, a rare but potentially fatal bowel disease in premature babies.
How the idea was born
Like many mothers, Leila Strickland had found breastfeeding difficult. Her first child, born three years before her, had struggled to latch onto her nipple. She now she was experiencing similar problems with her little daughter of hers. This is how Leila Strickland began to think about how she could grow not artificial meat but cells that produce breast milk. A pregnant woman could have had a breast biopsy during pregnancy, and she could have grown cells and produce milk even before the baby was born.
A few days later, she and her husband put together $ 5.000 in savings and bought a huge one from eBay biological hood, a microscope, an incubator and a centrifuge. For years she struggled to keep the project alive, and was on the verge of giving up. But in May 2020, Biomilq, the company he founded, raised $ 3,5 million from a group of investors led by Bill Gates.
Biomilq is now competing with competitors from Singapore and New York to shake up the world of infant nutrition in a way never seen before.
Breast milk, why is it so important
Breastfeeding has been in and out of fashion since ancient times. The entrusting of breastfeeding to someone other than the mother goes back at least to ancient Greece. In 1851, the first modern bottle was invented, pushing breastfeeding to near extinction. Shortly thereafter, German chemist Justus von Liebig invented the first commercial infant formula: cow's milk, wheat, malt flour and a pinch of potassium bicarbonate. Soon it was considered the ideal baby food, and goodbye mother's milk.
By the 20th century, the use of infant formula had skyrocketed, driven by a sea of advertising. At the same time, more and more women were joining the workforce, making breastfeeding more complicated. The perception that formula was just as safe and efficient, if not more so, precipitated breastfeeding. In the 70s the historical minimum. Today it's skyrocketing again, and doctors agree: breast milk promotes better nutrition for babies. However, many are breastfed only in the first months, then the percentage drops.
The turning point of Biomilq
The first step Leila Strickland took to create breast milk in the laboratory was anything but fascinating. She couldn't afford to buy human breast cell lines, which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. That's why she decided to start with cow cells. She got a piece of udder from a (already slaughtered) cow and she started working on it.
Breast milk derives from two types of cells in the milk ducts and alveoli: small sacs in the mammary gland where milk collects. Luminal epithelial cells absorb nutrients from the bloodstream and convert them into milk. Next to them, which line the ducts and alveoli, are smooth, muscle-like myoepithelial cells. When a baby begins to suckle, it pushes the myoepithelial cells to contract, pushing milk from the luminal cells, through the ducts, to the baby's mouth.
For three years, Strickland took her laptop to her tiny rented lab space to experiment with her cow udder cells. In 2016 he ran out of money and had to suspend the business. But the idea never abandoned her.
Three years later, however, in 2019, with the birth of new companies to produce food in the laboratory, Leila Strickland was convinced to start again, and founded a startup: Biomilq. this time the topic was hot, and found some funds. A qualitative leap was missing now, because this little money would run out soon.
Biomilq was on the brink of closure when a group of investors led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates to support technologies that can reduce carbon emissions, changed everything. In the spring of 2020, $ 3 million hit the startup's accounts, and now the challenge is open.
The race for breast milk born in the laboratory
As mentioned, Biomilq isn't the only company aiming to create a new type of infant formula. With a similar approach, TurtleTree Labs in Singapore hopes eventually to "replace all milk currently on the market," according to co-founder Max Rye. It hopes to launch its products on the market in 2021.
Meantime Helaina, based in New York, will emulate breast milk through fermentation. Laura Katz, the founder, plans to use microbes to synthesize the constituent compounds of milk (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and recombine them into a nutritious liquid. As similar processes have already gained US FDA approval for products such as Impossible Burgers, made with fermented soy protein, hopes to face fewer regulatory hurdles than its competitors.
What happens now?
None of these feats will be easy, because relatively little is known about breast milk. Most human breast epithelial cell studies tend to focus on their role in breast cancer rather than milk production.
And milk itself, is a rich and stunning element made from thousands of chemicals. We nutritionally know the proteins, carbohydrates and fat they contain. We know some particular bioactive molecules present, such as oligosaccharides (complex sugars that feed healthy bacteria in the baby's intestine), IgA (the main antibody present in breast milk) and other universally recognized as good.
But breast milk also contains short strands of RNA, the presence of which was only discovered in 2010 and whose role in the baby's development is still not well understood.
For this Biomilq plans to use mass spectrometry, a technique that measures the mass of different molecules within a sample, to study how the proteins, oligosaccharides and fats contained in their product behave with respect to the constituents of the breast milk released. from one breast.
But the most important challenge is another: how to standardize a substance that is unique to each mother.
The composition of breast milk changes as the baby grows. In the first few days after giving birth, mothers produce colostrum, a thick, yellow, concentrated milk rich in compounds such as IgA antibody and lactoferrin, an abundant protein that boosts the baby's immunity. Soon, colostrum is replaced by "transition milk", thinner but with more fat and lactose. After about two weeks, breast milk is considered "mature". But even then, the composition can change over the course of a single feed. Hindmilk, or the last milk left in a breast, has a higher fat content than previously produced milk, which is why women are often advised to empty one breast before switching to the other.
Although they admit at Biomilq they are unable to replicate this complexity, nor do they say all the antibodies and microbes in breast milk, they say their product will be more personalized than those of their competitors. They plan to work with pregnant women, taking samples of the their mammary epithelial cells and culturing them to create personalized milk for use when their babies arrive. Later, they hope to create a cheaper generic option using donor cells. Both, Egger insists, will be better than powdered milk.
Breast milk in the laboratory: where are we now?
Strickland and Egger have already produced a liquid containing both lactose and casein, the main proteins and sugary compounds found in breast milk. They are now testing it to see if they can detect other components, such as oligosaccharides and lipids. They are currently trying to figure out which combination brings them closest to the composition of natural breast milk. They estimate it will take about two years to find a good enough match.