A new startup called BIOMILQ today announced that it had successfully produced human casein and lactose, the predominant components found in breastmilk, through their new patent-pending process. In short, they’ve grown the key elements of human breastmilk in a lab.
The startup was founded last year by Michelle Egger, a food scientist who previously worked in dairy R&D at General Mills, and Dr. Leila Strickland, a cell biologist who first conceptualized the technology in 2013 while breastfeeding her own daughter. The two met in the Research Triangle and created a patent-pending technology in which they trigger human mammary gland cells, kept alive by a constant stream of nutrients, to lactate. They then collect the resulting breastmilk.
Then again, the term “breastmilk” may not be strictly accurate. “We’re not calling it breastmilk just yet,” said Egger, explaining that a woman’s breastmilk contains much more than just lactose and casein alone. However, they’re confident that their samples are “quite similar to milk.” The startup’s cultured milk samples are currently readying to go through a detailed molecular characterization to affirm that they have the same nutritional profile as breastmilk.
I never thought I’d type this sentence, but BIOMILQ isn’t the only company working to growing human breastmilk in a lab. TurtleTree Labs, based in Singapore, uses lactating mammary gland cells (from humans or other animals) placed in nutrient-rich baths to encourage them to excrete milk. They then filter out the milk and distill it for a final product. However, Egger claims that BIOMILQ’s process is different from TurtleTree’s in that they don’t need to filter the end result — the mammary gland cells just secrete milk directly, no media bath needed. “It’s a much cleaner technology,” she said.
BIOMILQ has stated that as far as they knew, they were the first company to create the components of human breastmilk outside of a lactating woman. However, when I reached out to TurtleTree their CTO Max Rye said they had created human breastmilk in Q3 of 2019 and had been optimizing it ever since. So it seems fair to say that there are at least two players making strides in the space.
That’s not the only difference between the two companies. BIOMILQ is targeting Western markets, while TurtleTree will likely debut in Asia. BIOMILQ will likely enter the market selling its own product to consumers either through D2C models or through retail channels, while TurtleTree plans to license out its tech to large dairy companies.
TurtleTree has also disclosed a timeline: they plan to enter the market in two years. BIOMILQ, on the other hand, has stayed mum on the question of when they’ll begin selling.
One part of that hesitation is likely due to regulatory issues. The USDA and the FDA are jointly regulating cell-based meat, but BIOMILQ’s technology is unique — it’s not cells grown in a lab, but rather cells produced by cells kept alive in a lab setting through a precise calibration of environment and nutrition. Therefore it’s unclear how regulators will categorize their product.
Egger didn’t release hard numbers around BIOMILQ’s pricing, but did reveal that it would likely cost slightly more than top-end infant formula by the time of their full-scale launch.
Lab-grown breastmilk may be a ways away, but cultivated dairy is not. Perfect Day and New Culture are already creating animal-free dairy by fermenting genetically engineered microbes. Unlike BIOMILQ, which cultivates milk excreted from a lactating cell, both of the aforementioned companies rely on fermentation to create the various components of dairy, which they then combine with water and fat to create milk. Egger claims that their method was more efficient since it can produce all of the elements of milk in a single cell.
All of these companies could potentially have a big impact on the dairy industry. Perfect Day and New Culture are developing an entirely animal-free way to create milk, while BIOMILQ could theoretically replace dairy-based infant formula.
Though they might want to replace formula, Egger and Strickland were clear that they don’t want to replace breastfeeding altogether. “We’re not positioning ourselves to be equivalent to breastfeeding, because we know that immunologically there are some things we won’t be able to do,” Egger told me. Instead, she framed their product as a “supplemental nutrition aid.”
That could especially come in handy in low- and middle-income countries. BIOMILQ plans to eventually use its technology to provide reliable, cost-efficient breastmilk to areas were infants might struggle to get access to good nutrition.
The startup is still in very early stages with no significant funding, so we don’t even know if BIOMILQ will be able to follow through on their plan to commercialize their cultured (cell-based? cultivated?) breastmilk. But considering I hadn’t heard of lab-grown breast milk until a few months ago, and now there are two new companies making it, I think it’s safe to assume that the infant formula space has a shake-up coming its way.