Sunday, February 13, 2011

Medela and its patents and patent applications

"Men have become the tools of their tools."
Henry David Thoreau

I should stay away from Lactnet (a professional listserve for lactation consultants and breastfeeding advocates). The discussion is on Medela and the WHO Code. Its a very nice discussion, nice being the operative word. Yes, in my opinion a very bland, good-girl conversation. Let's not get heated, upset over the issues of the marketing of artificial nipples by Medela and their thumbing their noses at the WHO Code. Let's wring our hands and wonder how could this possibly happen to a company that has supported breastfeeding all these years.
First question I would ask to breastfeeding advocates, what do you mean supportive of breastfeeding. Define your words. Breastfeeding? Or is the correct terminology breastmilkfeeding? Supportive? What support are we talking about? The gifting, the donations this company gave in the early days to LCs, to Conferences, and to breastfeeding organizations, ie. La Leche League International?. I remember those early days. As an LC, I was a pump rental station (for a few years). I had Ameda Egnell pumps to rent and decided to also provide Medela pumps (because the local hospitals were only giving out Medela pump kits which were not compatible with Ameda's pumps). The Medela representative came to my house and gave me over $100 worth of equipment as a "gift" for opening up a rental station. Wow--Ameda Egnell didn't give me gifts for opening a rental station but then again their rental to me wasn't as expensive as Medela's.
We had local breastfeeding conferences and Medela readily gave money to help out on our organizations expenses. I was so very grateful as a LLL leader to have the special Medela pump program for mother's who could not afford breastpumps or other breastfeeding equipment. It helped a number of moms in this area (one of the economically poorer counties of Florida). I thought it was generous of the company and I felt very positively about the company. Do gifts come with strings attached, those invisible strings that pull at our hearts? Back then, I would have said that Medela was supportive of breastfeeding. But was the reasoning because the company was supportive of breastfeeding? Or because the gifts swayed me to believe that this gift-giving was a symbol of their altruism? Overtime, as the pump rentals got more and more expensive and their other products, too; I found myself disenchanted. Although it wasn't just the price of the pumps, but that it seemed that the more breastfeeding equipment we had at our disposal, the less breastfeeding happened. I gave up the pump rental station when I began to question my own motives regarding pumps. Survival as a business meant keeping those pumps rented. So when a mom came to me with a request for a pump, my thoughts were a jumble of contradictions. "I need to rent this pump to keep the business afloat but the mom doesn't really need a pump." What to do? Let her rent it because she thinks this is the answer? How do you dissuade someone who has been convinced by the medical profession that this is the answer to all her breastfeeding problems? I found that the only answer for me was to get out of the pump rental business. I often wonder if I was the only LC who found this so difficult? I saw the usefulness of pumps for a small set of breastfeeding problems. Many of the moms I saw did not need a pump but needed intensive coaching regarding the reality of babies: the need for closeness and nursing often. cluster feeding, the total intensity of mothering. Pumping in my opinion is a risk factor for early weaning from the breast when instituted for the wrong reasons. Over time as an LC, I noticed that more and more women with newborn babies had breastpumps (some horrible pumps and some incredibly expensive pumps). So instead of discussing breastfeeding with these mothers, I had to spend more time going over pumping, storage, etc. Often these moms were not going back to work right away neither did they have any particular problem with breastfeeding, in fact many had purchased pumps during their pregnancy. So it was their "just in case" product, similiar to breastfeeding mothers who purchase infant formula...just in case. Doubt is already built-in to new mothers regarding breastfeeding. More and more pregnant mothers told me in exactly the same words, "I am going to try to breastfeed." Huh? Do we say that we are going to try and walk today but if it's too difficult we won't be walking? Or do we tell our boyfriends/husbands "I am going to try to have sex." But if it doesn't if its painful or whatever, I'll just opt out of that part of my biology? Interesting what we are willing to do and not do dependent on our belief system.
This is what is not brought up in discussions on Lactnet regarding Medela and the WHO Code and its marketing of artificial nipples. Medela has patent applications and patents that are worth looking at to get a better understanding of the company. First they do have a patent on an "Artificial nipple." Is it the same one they are marketing in violation of the WHO Code. I am not sure but the inventor is Brian H. Silver and it was published in 2010 (filed in 2003). Patent # 7712617. The patent reminds me of the way infant formula patents reads--the praise of human milk/breastfeeding and then of course the reality of our world where so many women don't or can't breastfeeding. "For various reasons, however, exclusive breastfeeding is not always possible. An example of this would be where a nursing mother cannot produce enough breast milk to feed her infant." That is a common thread in all infant formula patents--nursing mothers who cannot produce enough milk. This theme irritates me because almost all women can produce milk for their infants. The factors that cause a woman to not produce enough milk are: their lack of seeing breastfeeding within their own families and within their culture, medical interventions, drug interventions, separation of mothers and babies, birthing practices/drugs, lack of lactation support from family and the community.
Okay, lets look at a patent application owned by Medela with inventors Peter Edwin Hartmann, et al. It's called, "Human Milk Fortifiers and Methods for Their Production," patent application 2008187619 filed in 2005. Their first claim on their application. It appears to be a claim on a human milk component for use in making human milk fortifiers. I have no legal training, so that may not be what they are claiming. But it is odd that part of this patent is on methods of claim but some of it seems to verge on making claims on an unnamed component or components of human milk.

"1. Human milk fortifier comprising at least one human component based on a product directly or indirectly derived from human mammary secretion during at least one of the following periods: non-pregnant period, pregnant period, lactating period, involuting period."

The question we must ask ourselves is what happens when companies create human milk fortifiers. This is a good thing--we know this as breastfeeding advocates. But I can't help but believe that once we make products from human milk than the necessity of breastfeeding becomes less apparent. What happens to companies who market fortifiers (like the infant formula companies)? The market has to expand to more customers because of the monies invested in a product. That means that fortifiers for premature babies go home with them and are not just in use in the NICU.

Peter Hartmann, researcher for Medela, also is a listed inventor to other patent applications at the US Patent & Trademark Office: "Treatment of mother's milk, "Method for Analysing & Treating Human Milk and System Thereof." It appears that research is directed towards better pasteruization methods, better fat content, etc. All very praiseworthy attempts in regards to helping premature babies survive. Yet I am troubled by this, too. What do we really know about human milk and why are we so willing to tinker with it? Oh it has too little fat? Not enough of this component or that we think we know better than nature? And will all this tinkering only happen with premature babies or will we expand these manipulations to all babies?

Okay, what about the patent called, "Method for isolating cells from mammary secretion," patent # 7776586? Owned by Carag AG-Michael Larsson of the family who owns Medela bought the company in 1999 and the company is involved in joint ventures with Medela among several Universities-University of Western Australia, University of Zurich, University of Gotherburg, University of Belgrade. The inventors are Mark Derek Cregan and Peter Edwin Hartmann. This patent is about a method for isolating progenitor cells [stem cells] from breastmilk. Stem cells have enormous value in the medical market. The patent was filed in 2004 and in 2010 was finally published. This patent isn't about ownership but a method to collect stem cells from breastmilk. Should we be troubled by this? I have alot of reservations about a company that ignores the WHO Code and understands very deeply the value of human milk (note I am not saying breastfeeding). Most of the infant formula companies in their patents state the awesome nature of human milk. Yet their business is to create products that compete against breastfeeding. The infant formula industry wants to create a safer, better infant formula. Likewise Medela wants to create a better, safer human milk (fortifier). Where goes this thinking? Its so right but so wrong.
Copyright 2011 Valerie W. McClain


  1. I truly believe that the concept of a tool that allows you to supplement at the breast is amazing, and had it not been so trying and tiring to use, it may very well have saved my breastfeeding relationship.

  2. Yes, the creativity of the human race is that we can create these amazing tools. But those amazing tools can cause more problems.