Less Breast More Milk: the science of making human milk in the lab

The first superfood?

Long before acai bowls and kale started trending, one superfood preceded them all. It’s one we’ve been dependent on since we first evolved and is so important that we even make it ourselves. This superfood is… breastmilk!

For babies, the many health benefits of breastmilk include cutting the risk of asthma, diabetes, and allergies later in life. And for parents, breastfeeding protects against osteoporosis and multiple types of cancer.

Even though most parents understand the health benefits, only 39% of Australian babies are exclusively breastfeed for their first 6 months of life. There are many reasons that some parents don’t, and sometimes even shouldn’t breastfeed. These include physical and mental health challenges, or financial strain when parents can’t afford to take time off work to breastfeed.

Human milk in the lab

Breastmilk made in the lab could replace infant formula. Photo by Ring on Flickr

The overwhelming benefits of breastmilk, combined with the struggles of breastfeeding, got scientists in Singapore and the US thinking. They wanted to know if they could use technology to make breastmilk with all the benefits but none of the humans.

Scientists started by getting a hold of breast cells using two different approaches. Their first option was to collect stem cells and transform them into breast cells. Their second option was simply to take cells straight out of volunteer breasts.

Once scientists isolated the breast cells, they put them into big vats to grow and divide. Nutrients, temperature, and chemicals in the vat were kept the same as they are inside a human breast. This made the breast cells feel so at home that they started producing milk, human milk!

Even though this milk has been made in the lab, it is nearly identical to the stuff that babies get from the nipple. Not only does it contain the right proteins, fats, and sugars, but these are in the right ratios to help a tiny human grow. This is an exciting alternative to infant formula which is made from cow milk. While formulas are much better than nothing, their chemical profile has been optimised to help baby cows grow, not humans.

What about other animals?

Orphaned kangaroos could be reared on lab grown kangaroo milk. Photo by Holtham on Flickr

People aren’t the only ones with a lot to gain here; similar technologies could be used to feed orphaned mammals like kangaroo or koala joeys. Just like human babies, young animals grow best when they have the milk of their own species. And this technology could help to provide that!

Why should we be excited about lab breastmilk?

Lab-made breastmilk is a great option for parents out there who are struggling to breastfeed and who have had to rely on instant formula, until now. It’s also great for eco-friendly parents. Compared to dairy-based infant formulas, lab grown breast milk generates fewer greenhouse gases and requires less water, energy, and land.

Most importantly though, lab grown breastmilk can fight against the stigma that has been built up around parents who don’t or can’t breastfeed. Producing breastmilk in the lab means more babies can get the nutrients they need, even when the messiness of life is stopping them from breastfeeding from their parents.

2 Responses to “Less Breast More Milk: the science of making human milk in the lab”

  1. Maeve Dowty says:

    Thanks for you question Ethan, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Biomilq, one of the companies who working on lab grown breastmilk, reckon that they’re about 3 years off which is pretty exciting!

  2. Ethan Wake says:

    Such an interesting article! Is there any indication as to when lab-milk could be commercially available?