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According to the World Health Organization, breastmilk protects infants from gastrointestinal infections, reduces the risk of obesity, and plays a vital role in improving IQ later in life. Extensive research has been conducted to improve formula milk. However, it still lacks some of the essential nutrients of breastmilk because “formula milk” is based on cow milk and not human breast milk. Alan Kelly, a food scientist at University College Cork in Ireland, explained that even though the milk from either source contains similar molecules, their varying proportions can significantly impact infants.
Fengru Lin, the co-founder of TurtleTree Labs, said that several reasons make breastfeeding impossible for some new mothers, e.g., mothers who are on medication or undergoing treatments, premature babies who are too weak to suckle, and mothers who have to return to work where pumping and storing milk is difficult. Both Lin and Michelle Egger, Biomilq’s co-founder and CEO, believe that their products will be the next best thing to breastmilk.
The method used for the development of breastmilk is different in both companies. Biomilq utilizes mammary epithelial cells found in the breast’s ducts and lobules, whereas TurtleTree Labs uses stem cells from the donor’s breastmilk. These cells are first multiplied and then fed to a bioreactor containing a unique growth medium. The cells differentiate into mammary cells and start producing milk. Lin said that the entire milk production process takes three weeks, and the mammary cells can lactate for roughly 200 days.
While explaining the difference between lab milk and breastmilk, Natalie Shenker, a researcher at Imperial College London, said that human breastmilk contains antibodies, hundreds of proteins, more than 200 oligosaccharides, a multitude of hormones, fats, and beneficial bacteria. She said that all these components are crucial for cell membrane, renal, and immune system development and that certain components of human breastmilk cannot be replicated in the lab, e.g., antibodies. These antibodies are produced in the blood and transported into mammary cells, that protect the baby against diseases.
Both companies have acknowledged that they cannot replicate all of the constituents of breastmilk, but can produce thousands of other essential components. In the future, Biomilq plans to sell milk directly to consumers, whereas TurtleTree aims to license its technology to large formula companies.
Before commercialization, further research is required in several areas such as bulk production of milk, pasteurization, freezing, and conversion of liquid milk into a powder without changing its nutritional properties. Infants are an exceptionally sensitive population and hence specific ethical and clinical considerations must be followed while designing, implementing, and evaluating clinical trials and their findings. Even though these companies have not yet successfully replicated all the components of breastmilk, their success in the production of two of the vital components, namely, lactose and casein, has paved the way for the development of milk that will be nutritionally equivalent to breastmilk.