The Future of Feeding: Lab Grown Breast Milk

Pregnancy | | Natasha Weiss
5 min read

How someone feeds their baby is a highly personal decision that’s influenced by their body, birth outcomes and overall health, adoption or surrogacy, their lifestyle and other responsibilities, and their personal preferences.

There are so many different opinions out there about the “right” way to feed your baby, but ultimately “fed is best”. That means not only are the baby’s nutritional needs being met, but the parent(s) have the system and tools to support their needs as well. 

As of now, the main sources of milk to feed infants come from nursing, pumping and bottle feeding, using donor milk for bottle feeding, formula, or some combination of these. But a new scientific development may change the game when it comes to feeding your baby – lab-grown breastmilk. 

The Science of Breastmilk

Breastmilk, or chest milk for those that prefer the gender-neutral term, is a pretty incredible superfood. Human bodies are incredibly intelligent and adapt to your baby’s needs throughout your lactation journey.

Fed is best, and although there is no shame in feeding your baby in whatever way works for you, there is research backing the benefits of breast milk for babies. 

Breast milk can help build a healthy immune system for infants, and newborns who were given colostrum (first milk) had a decrease in respiratory and gastrointestinal infections during the first weeks of life. Human milk also has a positive impact on neurodevelopment for both preemies and those born full-term. 

What makes breast milk so beneficial? It’s packed full of vitamins and nutrients. Human milk is made mostly of water (87%), carbohydrates (7%), lipids (4%), and protein (1%), as well as trace amounts of essential minerals and vitamins. The nutritional components and antibodies change depending on a baby’s age as well as any infections the baby or lactating parent may have.

If mammalian milk offers so many benefits, why don’t people opt for milk from other animals versus using formula? Cow milk, for example, is generally not safe for babies to drink as it has too many minerals and proteins for a baby’s kidneys to process while lacking the nutrients they do need. 

Can You Grow Breastmilk in a Lab?

Donation milk is a great option for people who want to feed their babies human milk but can’t or don’t want to lactate on their own, but it’s not accessible to everyone. That’s one of the driving forces behind companies like BIOMILQ and TurtleTree, which are developing alternative milk sources that offer the same benefits as breast milk. 

If you’re familiar with lab grown meats that have grown popular in recent years, lab grown milk is manufactured similarly. Lab grown meat is created by growing animal cells that are then harvested before making their way to your plate. Lab grown milk on the other hand, utilizes human mammary cells by keeping them healthy and well fed so they can secrete milk that could then make its way to your baby’s bottle. 

Where did these mammary cells come from? In the case of BIOMILQ, over 70 women from all different backgrounds and lactation stages donated their breast milk. Researchers then isolated cells that became the foundation of their products. 

What’s the Difference Between Lab Grown Milk and Formula?

Plenty of babies use formula with no negative health outcomes. Let’s be clear – there’s nothing inherently wrong with formula, but it is difficult to get the same nutritional benefits from it that you do from human milk. 

According to the BIOMILQ website “human mammary cells can produce components only found in breast milk and are uniquely beneficial to the human body.” So while these companies can’t completely replicate human milk, their products will contain many of the components found in human breast milk including complex sugars, fats, proteins, and all human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) that are found in human milk. 

On the other hand, this milk won’t have the antibodies or microbes present in a lactating parent’s milk that are so helpful to an infant’s immune system and gut health.

Still, lab-grown milk offers a lot more nutritional benefits to babies than formula. Although formula has come a long way in recent years, it still lacks nutritionally when compared to breastmilk – yes, that includes lab grown milk. It’s also important to note that most formulas are based on cow, or in some cases, goat milk, versus human milk. 

While we’re all mammals, our infants do have different nutritional needs. For example, HMOs that we mentioned before, are unique to human milk and play a large role in protecting against infections and overall development. Babies fed exclusively with formula may miss out on some of these nutrients. 

Lab grown human milk may also be a more environmentally friendly option than cow-based formula. Formula requires a large amount of water to manufacture and often contains palm oil, an industry that takes a large toll on the planet. 

How To Get Lab Grown Milk for Your Baby

Breastfeeding is one of the best options for babies, but for one reason or another, not every parent wants to or is able to breastfeed their children. Again, this is a personal decision that is influenced by so many factors. Still, you want the best possible option for your baby that is both accessible and works with your lifestyle. 

Donor milk is a great option for parents who would rather feed their baby human milk – but it’s not always accessible. Donor milk is not available in every city, or even country, and private donors are often unregulated and expensive (yes, people pay for breastmilk).

As of early 2023, lab grown breast milk is not yet available to consumers, but researchers are getting closer and closer to launching products. There are a lot of regulations that manufacturers must abide by, especially when it comes to clinical trials on infants and creating guidelines around a new product.

Fingers crossed that these products become available soon and that parents will have even more options when it comes to feeding their babies!

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