Mothers who experience problems with breastfeeding may soon have a new option when it comes to feeding their babies: lab-grown breast milk.
Breast milk provides optimum nutrition for a baby’s growth and health. Moms repeatedly are told that breast is best. While that is undeniably true, based on the research, the reality is that not every mom can breastfeed. There are also moms who are unable to provide enough milk to meet 100% of their baby’s needs. Likewise, some women choose not to breastfeed or have a medical contraindication to breastfeeding.
Researchers in Singapore at the start-up TurtleTree Labs has created the world’s first lab-grown breast milk. According to TurtleTree’s website, they “have cracked the code in producing a complete nutritional biomatch to human breast milk.”
The milk is developed from stem cells and then transformed into mammary gland cells that lactate. They are now working on developing and commercializing the milk. TurtleTree’s goal is to launch the lab-grown milk by next year.
There are a variety of reasons a woman might be looking for a substitute or supplement to her own breast milk. Up until now, these moms have been left with the options of purchasing expensive donor breast milk from a milk bank, using unscreened and potentially unsafe milk from a friend or relative or using commercially produced infant formula, which is vastly inferior to breast milk.
The creators are trying to make the innovative lab-made breast milk affordable as well. Max Rye, Chief Strategist at TurtleTree Labs, states on their website, “We should be able to bring the cost down to as low as US$35 per liter in 2020, however we anticipate this price will drop further as we continue to innovate.” While this is more expensive than the average name brand formulas that come ready to feed, it is much cheaper than human donor milk, which averages $4-5 per ounce.
The company is collaborating with several top infant nutrition companies for distribution.
While the milk grown in the lab is identical nutritionally to breast milk by replicating human milk oligosaccharides, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, it is not exactly like milk made by mothers. Their milk has antibodies from her blood and microbiota from her gut.
This groundbreaking development will be welcome news to those moms who want to provide the best nutrition to their babies but have struggled with breastfeeding or were unable to. According to the CDC, almost 84% of infants in the US were breastfed in 2016, the most recent year that data is available. The good news is that this rate surpasses the goal of Healthy People 2020 of 82% of babies ever being breastfed. While these statistics indicate that breastfeeding initiation rates are good, the statistics are not as encouraging for continued or exclusive breastfeeding. The Healthy People 2020 goals are 61% continued breastfeeding at six months. Only 57% of children were still being breastfed at all at six months, and only 25% were breastfeeding exclusively.
While TurtleTree’s first target is the infant nutrition industry, they have their sites on the dairy market as well. According to their website: “TurtleTree Lab’s proprietary cell-based processes of creating clean milk completely bypass the environmental degradation and animal welfare issues of industrial dairy, nourishing individuals and societies and reducing environmental, social, and economic stressors.”