The Race to Recreate Breast Milk Without the Breast
Companies are harnessing biotech to make bespoke milk
For many new mothers, the “breast is best” advice given by doctors can seem hopelessly unrealistic. Not all women have the time or support they need to breastfeed, and some have trouble producing enough milk or getting their baby to latch.
Although health experts recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, only about 25% in the United States are. The vast majority of mothers start breastfeeding but don’t keep it up. Before the coronavirus pandemic, many women stopped breastfeeding because they simply couldn’t do it at work. With no federally mandated maternity leave policy in the United States, women return to work much sooner than they do in other countries. Pumping at work can be onerous, and some workplaces may not be accommodating to new mothers.
“This is a huge burden both physically and emotionally,” Sarah Reyes, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manitoba who studies breast milk, tells Future Human.
Amid this less-than-ideal situation, a handful of startups are trying to engineer better formula that more closely resembles breast milk. While some are focusing on recreating a few important compounds found in human milk to give standard formulas a boost, others are attempting to grow actual breast milk in the lab from just a couple of cells. In the future, breast milk and baby formula could even be turned into a drug to help treat sick babies.
There are plenty of infant formulas on the market, but none get close to real breast milk. Most formula is made with cow’s milk, which doesn’t contain the same components found in human milk. Beyond providing nutrition, breast milk helps build up babies’ immune systems and lowers the risk of infections, diarrhea, and allergies. It may also aid early brain development. The formula found in stores today provides the basic nutrients babies need, like sugars and carbohydrates, but breast milk is a far more complex mixture.
“This is a huge burden both physically and emotionally.”
Companies have long sought to improve baby formula. “There’s always been interest,” says…