Strickland struggled to produce enough breast milk for her first child. “A lot of women struggle with this,” she says.
The formula is often based on powdered cow’s milk and can “meet many of the nutritional needs,” Strickland says, but it can’t mimic “the complexity of breast milk.” Strickland says BIOMILQ’s product, by comparison, better matches the nutritional profile of breast milk than formula, with more similar proportions of protein, carbohydrates and fats.
The BIOMILQ team makes its product from cells from human breast tissue and milk, donated by women in the local community, who receive a Target gift card in return. BIOMILQ grows the cells in flasks, feeds them with nutrients and then incubates them in a bioreactor that mimics the environment in a breast. Here the cells absorb more nutrients and secrete milk components.
BIOMILQ is still three to five years away from bringing a product to market, Strickland says. First, the startup needs to grow breast cells on a much larger scale — and at a lower cost. BIOMILQ also needs to convince regulators that the product is safe for babies, a task that is especially challenging for a new food category such as lab-grown breast milk products.
“There’s not really a regulatory framework,” Strickland says.
No magic formula
Even if BIOMILQ gets this far, breast milk coming from a bioreactor doesn’t have exactly the same health benefits as milk coming from a breast, according to Natalie Shenker, a fellow at Imperial College London and co-founder of the Human Milk Foundation, who helps with providing donor milk to families in need.
Fatty acids, which promote brain development and growth, and hormones like cortisol, which help develop the baby’s sleep cycle, come from the mother’s blood, Shenker says.
Lactation consultant Courtney Miller, who supports breastfeeding mothers, agrees that cell-cultured milk is not a “replacement for breast milk.” But she thinks it could offer parents “another choice,” especially when it comes to adoption or surrogacy.
Miller also believes BIOMILQ can advance the scientific study of breast milk. She has donated a few ounces of her own milk to the startup, hoping her research could lead to new breakthroughs in infant nutrition.
A growth industry
— Rachel Crane contributed to this article.