“The inconvenient truth about breastfeeding is that breasts are, invariably, attached to a person.” —A Bold and Controversial Idea for Making Breast Milk: The obsession with breastfeeding has inspired a start-up to make human milk outside the human body.” by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, 2/27/2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/02/lab-grown-breast-milk/606955/
How inconvenient that breasts are attached to people, that mammary glands aren’t hanging from trees; to be plucked and harvested by our trusty scientists. Culturing mammary cells outside the body, requires that women donate their excess milk producing cells. Scientists have gotten these cells, Human Milk Epithelial Cells (HMEC), from women who have undergone reduction mammoplasty or biopsy. Research scientists can buy HMEC from various companies. ThermoFisher Scientific cells a vial of HMEC for $806. But BIOMILQ states that they are using the company, American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) for their HMEC right now (price $623). https://www.atcc.org/products/all/PCS-600-010.aspx
They are accepting donations of HMEC. Do women who have reduction surgeries or biopsies know that their mammary cells have monetary value? Or do they assume that all that excess tissue is thrown in the local landfill?
The Atlantic article describes the start-up biotech company, BIOMILQ, as “a bioreactor of lactating human breast cells.” We now have lab-grown meat (cultured meat), so why not lab-grown human milk (cultured human milk)? Lab-grown meat is described as environmentally clean food. So I suppose that the lab-grown human milk will be billed as environmentally clean food.
The article states the reasons for needing this new biotech company are: a person might get sick and not be able to breastfeed, many women have to return to work at 2 weeks postpartum because the US does not have guaranteed paid leave, and there is no place to pump at work. The reasoning seems quite irrational. In most cases being sick is no reason to stop breastfeeding. In fact, the mother will transfer antibodies to the infant, if she has contracted a pathogenic illness. One of the solutions to the problem of having to go back to work at 2 weeks postpartum or not having a place to pump is in changing laws so that people are paid to stay home to take care of their baby. Particularly now that so many people in the US are unemployed, it would make sense to help families with new babies by paying them to stay home. This would certainly help the breastfeeding mother. But instead of finding a solution to help mothers breastfeed longer or exclusively, companies are forming to exploit the vulnerability of the breastfeeding mother.
The website of BIOMILQ makes the following statements,
“Breastfeeding is hard for most and impossible for many.”
“We’re women-owned, science-led and mother centered.”
“Exclusive breastfeeding is unrealistic for some and impossible for many…”
Why is breastfeeding/exclusive breastfeeding hard and impossible? I would suggest it is hard and impossible because our society is institutionally structured to make it hard and impossible. We need to examine how mothers are treated during pregnancy and birth. How society’s cavalier approach to separating mothers and babies creates enormous difficulties for mothers and babies. Employment in our society is a judgment of a person’s worth. There is no recognition for the importance of care-giving for infants and elders, or the sick and disabled. Instead our society believes in warehousing the “inconvenient” children, elders, and disabled into institutions. Institutions have to organize the group rather than caring for the individual. That so many individuals in our society feel untouched, unhappy, and lonely is not surprising.
Is the solution to manufacture a substitute for breastfeeding? At present the company is working on producing just 2 components, casein and lactose. Human milk has hundreds of components. For example there are over 200 Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs). Some infant formula companies are just now including 2 HMOs into their products. Most of the patents on the manufacture of HMOs are about genetically engineering them through a fermentation process using the bacteria, e.coli.
I certainly like the idea of a women-owned, science-led, and mother-centered company. But just because women are involved doesn’t mean that the ultimate purpose of such a company is in the best interest of women and families globally. Just because they “say” they are a mother-centered company doesn’t mean much. What is more important is what they “do.” Their product displaces breastfeeding. The ultimate purpose in our capitalist society is for companies to make a profit. The use of human cells taken from women to create a profit reminds me of a kind of biological slavery. Do women know that their mammary tissue/cells will be the source of profit for a company? BIOMILQ’s website states that breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding is hard and impossible for most women reminds me of infant formula advertising. Actually the infant formula industry is much more subtle in their advertising. BIOMILQ is much bolder about their views on breastfeeding.
The founders of this start-up company are Leila Strickland, PhD, CMPP, and Michelle Egger. According to several articles on the company and about the founders of the company, Leila Strickland has 2 children and breastfed them. She had trouble breastfeeding. Both babies were premature and premature babies often have difficulties feeding and not just with breastfeeding. Her troubles led her to think about a better complementary milk product for breastfeeding mothers than is currently available. She has a PhD in cell biology from Stanford University, and so she began to experiment with cell cultures. One of the problems with cell culture’s manufacturing substances is that cells are kept alive by media and mammary cells would secrete their milk into the media. Finding a way to keep the milk from mixing with the media would be a first step in creating a cultured milk. Yet I have to wonder; if one is feeding the mammary cells with media, then isn’t the milk cells contaminated with media? Do cells throw up a barrier against the media? Keeping cells immortal in a lab, would seem to mean that one is feeding them the media. In my opinion feeding is ingestion. https://www.new-harvest.org/biomilq_announces_breastmilk
For further information on various media used in cell cultures: https://www.biologydiscussion.com/biotechnology/animal-biotechnology/culture-media-for-animal-cells-an-overview/10499
Leila Strickland has several other companies that she has co-founded: 108 Labs- a cellular agriculture incubator, NeutraSiga-creation of antibodies to neutralize pathogens and cancer. http://www.quantum-weft-129523.appspot.com/
Strickland is also a Certified Medical Publication Professional (CMPP). She has edited and written articles for medical publications.
Michelle Eggers is a food scientist with an MBA from Duke University. She has worked/interned for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
BIOMILQ just received $3.5 million in Series A funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures which was co-founded by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg. It is an investment firm focused on environmental-friendly alternatives to combat climate change. Fascinating that billionaires would think that manufacturing a breast milk substitute would be more environmentally-friendly than breastfeeding. Yet lab-grown breast milk will require the use of bottles and pacifiers. This would mean more plastic and more environmental degradation. Infant milk products require packaging. So we create more trash in our landfills. The premise of breast milk substitutes is that mothers and babies will be separated. Instead of encouraging breastfeeding and minimal separation of mothers and babies, our capitalist system supports the opposite. The more a breastfeeding mother uses breast milk substitutes, the less breast milk she produces resulting in early, eventual weaning. Do billionaires really want to combat climate change or is the talisman of profit over people the real end game?
In April 2020. Dr. Robert M. McLean wrote an article for the ACP Internist called, “Battling the hydra of the medical-industrial complex.
“The Medical-industrial complex has become a monster. It is devastating to our patients, and it is devouring physicians at every level, physically, emotionally, and even intellectually. Smart minds have taken business models to the extreme in health care-related corporations. Decisions on resource allocation or new initiatives are driven by the critical concept of return on investment (ROI).”
The commodification of human milk and now human mammary cells is creating an illusion that what is lab-made is cleaner, an easier reality than breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is slandered and libeled by breast milk substitute companies. Who will defend breastfeeding, when science backed by billionaires attacks the value of breastfeeding?
Copyright 2020 Valerie W. McClain