Startups are racing to reproduce breast milk in the lab – MIT Technology Review

Biomilq was on the brink of shuttering when Strickland and Egger were promised $3.5 million in funding from a group of investors led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which Bill Gates had established to back technologies that could reduce carbon emissions. Upending the formula industry held the promise of doing just that. As the spring of 2020 gave way to summer, the money arrived in Biomilqs bank account.

Biomilq is not the only company aiming to make a new kind of baby formula. Using a broadly similar approach, TurtleTree Labs in Singapore eventually hopes to replace all milk currently on the market, according to cofounder Max Rye. In addition to other projects, the company is working to create fortifiers that can be added to formula to duplicate the properties of breast milk. Some formulas are already fortified with proteins and carbohydrates derived synthetically or from cows milk. Another cofounder, Fengru Lin, explains that, in contrast to Biomilq, TurtleTree plans to work with the formula industry and hopes to get its products to market in 2021.

Meanwhile, Helaina, a company based in New York, will emulate breast milk through fermentation. Laura Katz, the companys founder, plans to use microbes to synthesize the milks constituent compoundsproteins, carbohydrates, and fatsand then recombine them into a nutritious liquid. Since similar processes have already won approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for products like Impossible Burgers, which are made from fermented soy protein, she hopes to face fewer regulatory hurdles than her competitors. Like Strickland and Egger, she is motivated by indignation at the lack of options for new parents.

I think the best thing we can do is support women to breastfeed, Katz says. But if thats impossible, mothers deserve something better than current infant formula. She adds, I see all this innovation happening in cell-based meat production for people who just want to eat a burger, but the products that we feed babies have stayed static over the past 20, 30 years.

None of these propositions will be scientifically simple, in part because relatively little is known about breast milk. Most studies of human mammary epithelial cells tend to focus on their role in breast cancer rather than milk production.

As for the milk itself, its a rich and bewildering stew of thousands of chemicals. We know nutritionally about the proteins, the carbohydrates, and the fat in there. We know about some particular bioactive molecules in there, like oligosaccharides [complex sugars that feed healthy bacteria in a babys gut], IgA [the main antibody found in breast milk], bile-salt-stimulated lipase [an enzyme that aids in the digestion of fats]these things that people always bring up as being good in breast milk, says Tarah Colaizy, the research director of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, who also teaches at the University of Iowa. But, she notes, breast milk also contains short strands of RNA, whose presence was only discovered in 2010, and whose role in infant development is not yet well understood.

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Startups are racing to reproduce breast milk in the lab - MIT Technology Review

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