While most health experts today recommend breastfeeding babies over formula-feeding, not all mothers are able or willing to do so.
“In the first few months of life, when the baby is completely dependent on milk, there is no real substitute for breast milk, ” says Nurit Argov-Argaman from the Department of Animal Sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This is because breast milk has short-term positive effects on health and development during infancy, but some of the effects are long-lasting and extend into adulthood.” That is why Argov-Argaman co-founded the startup Bio Milk, which operates at the intersection of biotech and food tech to develop technology to produce cultured cow and breast milk.
Bio Milk CEO Tomer Aizen says the company is developing a process that will allow the production of cultured human breast milk, which will include all of the complex composition found in natural breast milk secreted from the mother’s body.
“Indeed, this represents the breast milk alternative that’s as close as what nature has to offer,” he tells NoCamels.
There are many infant formulas on the market, but none of them come close compositionally to real breast milk. Experts say that in addition to feeding the baby, breast milk helps build an infant’s immune system and lowers the risk of infections.
“The compounds on the market address the baby’s nutritional needs, but they lack the specific compounds that improve the baby’s immune system because the formulas are based on cow’s milk, which is less adapted to a baby’s digestive system,” says Einat Talmon, a breastfeeding consultant and author of The Israeli Breastfeeding Guide.
A decade ago, scientists made a breakthrough in the field when they began to understand how to separate human milk from complex structures of sugars called oligosaccharides, the third most common component of breast milk, after lactose and lipids. These sugars are important because they encourage the growth and development of healthy gut bacteria that effectively lower the risk of intestinal infections in infants.
Although these sugars are also found in cow’s milk, they are noticeably less common and differ in composition. Therefore, in order to replicate human breast milk, formula manufacturers must genetically modify bacteria so that they can produce sufficient oligosaccharides, and this is a complicated process.
As part of their process, Aizen says Bio Milk scientists also separate oligosaccharides and include them in the newly created cultured breast milk.
“We understand that our ability to technologically replicate breast milk in laboratory conditions is very limited. There are still many unknown factors regarding breast milk,” says Argov-Argaman. “We do not yet fully understand the role and significance of all the elements found in real breast milk for the health of the baby. Not only does the composition vary from woman to woman, but it also varies with the passage of time, whether it be a few hours or a few weeks. Its composition is uniquely adapted to the baby.”
Breast milk outside the mother
Biomilq, an American company with a similar name to the Israeli company, has already raised USD 3.5 million from Bill Gates’ investment firm, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. This company provides some serious competition to its Israeli counterpart, as they have developed their method of lab-engineered breast milk by extracting cells from the mammary gland, the organ that produces milk in a woman’s body. They do this by performing a minimally invasive biopsy on a woman to create their own custom-made milk.
The company has also discovered a way to multiply these cells as a substrate that includes nutrients and minerals. The milk-producing cells undergo rigorous testing to ensure its consumption safety and that it reflects the properties of authentic breast milk.
The company estimates its product will be available to the public by 2025. Aizen says the process of engineering breast milk that was developed by Israeli company Bio Milk is more convenient and less expensive than BioMilq’s process because “we take from the mammary gland to develop cells, then reproduce those cells over and over again. Bio Milk’s process does not require having to go back to the mother.”
Bio Milk currently holds patents for the production of cultured milk from animals within laboratory conditions, but now the company has set its sights on producing cultured breast milk.
“The best way to make breast milk accessible is through the production of breast milk outside the mother,” says Argov-Argaman. “At Bio Milk, we use the same tissue and try to grow the cells in the lab so that we continue to develop and produce milk like a breastfeeding mother.”
“The technology for the production of cultured breast milk is similar to the production of cultured milk from other animals. It requires a long and comprehensive regulatory process,” she adds.
In October, they raised an initial round of NIS 12 million (USD 3.7 million) from private investors. Bio Milk is in the final stage of becoming a publicly listed company. When this happens, they will receive an additional NIS 7 million (USD 2.18 million) in capital, according to Aizen. They hope to release the first sample of cultured cow’s milk for testing in 2021 and breast milk in 2022.
Better for the environment?
In addition to potentially providing important health benefits, the efforts of Bio Milk and other similarly oriented companies may prove to be cleaner environmentally compared to formulas derived from cow’s milk
Livestock agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The dairy cattle industry emits the equivalent of 2.128 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (2.128 gigatonnes CO2) per year in the form of methane and nitrous oxide in addition to CO2.
“There is usually a correlation between the cost of production and the product’s environmental consequences,” says Hagit Ulanovsky, an expert in health and environmental risk management at SP Interface. “And we currently do not have the ability to environmentally assess the effects of these evolving products compared to those on the market because there are new technologies,” she adds.
“It is important to note that the decision whether to breastfeed or not is first and foremost a personal decision of the mother,” Ulanovsky adds. “Women should be given the legitimate option not to breastfeed. Therefore, the production of a better, healthier, and safer formula can strengthen the mother’s free choice.”
This article was written for NoCamels by ZAVIT – Science and Environment in Israel. It first appeared in NoCamels, which covers innovations from Israel for a global audience.