Local start-up looks to produce breast milk without the need of nursing mothers

A Singapore start-up company is all set to tap into the lucrative baby milk formula industry by creating their own break milk, without the need of nursing mothers.

Turletree Labs had figured out a way to produce breast milk from stem cells of any mammal. Currently, the process is in the midst of getting its patent approved.

The company also says that it’s is the first in the world to be able to produce milk from mammal’s stem cells.

The homegrown company’s chief technology officer Max Rye told TODAY that it is focusing at the infant milk formula industry, which is currently valued at US$45 billion.

Market research consultancy Fortune Business Insights pointed out that this amount is predicted to increase more than double by 2026.

However, Mr Rye revealed that the start-up is not looking to compete on the price with other infant milk formula in the market. In fact, it plans to set its price higher.

This is because he thinks that customers will be willing to pay more for breast milk, which is deemed to be more beneficial for babies compared to formula milk.

“We don’t see ourselves as directly competing. We see (our milk) as a better product that baby formula companies can put out themselves,” he said.

He added, “This will be the first time you could create real human milk without having the mum, which is why it can command a premium price.”

When asked on how the idea of generating milk from stem cells came about, the homegrown company’s chief executive office Lin Fengru said that it’s from her personal hobby of creating cheese at home.

As a cheese connoisseur, Ms Lin visited many dairy farms in the region to source for milk that would allow her to make high-quality cheese. But, she ended up being disappointed after looking at the living conditions of these animals in the farms.

“I went around Indonesia and Thailand to look for milk but it’s a problem because a lot of hormones are being pumped into the cows. The quality of the milk suffers because of that. Animal hygiene is also bad. The cows are sitting around in their own poop. It’s not a good environment for cows to create good milk,” she said to TODAY.

As such, this prompted her to research on the science on what makes good milk. She did this while she was working as an account manager at Google, and started talking about it to her friend Mr Rye last year on using stem cells to produce milk in the same way some alternative types of meat are produced.

After that, Mr Rye, an American with extensive experience in the tech industry, got in touch with some scientists he knew and they said that this was scientifically possible. This then led to both of them starting Turtletree Labs.

The process

The head scientist at Turtletree Labs Dr Rabail Toor said to TODAY that the team generates the milk by using technology that differentiate or changes stem cells into mammary cells before getting the cells to lactate.

He explained that the first step is to retrieve stem cells from sources like milk. Following that, the cells are then moved into an environment where they can changed into mammary gland cells.

These mammary gland cells then interact with a special formula which gets the cells to induce milk. After that, the cells are then separated from the milk in a filtration process. This whole process takes about three weeks, and the type of milk generated depends on the kind of mammal the stem cell is taken from.

Initially, the team started off by producing cow’s milk before moving into generating breast milk two months ago after an investor pointed out that it is more profitable for the company to focus on the infant milk formula industry.

The team is positive that they will see results, after successfully producing cow’s milk in the lab before. The company noted that it will be producing its first batch of breast milk in “laboratory quantities” by January 2020.

First company to reproduce milk in its full composition

Although Turletree Labs is not the first company to produce milk without using animals, but the start-up’s founders claim that they are the only one in the world to have figured out a way to reproduce milk in its full composition.

Most companies create alternative milks by using plants like soy or oat. But, these milks do not have the full composition of a mammal’s milk. This means that while plant-based milk can replace drinking milk by adding in coffee, but they can be used to produce cheese, butter or yogurt, Ms Lin explained.

Companies like Californian start-up Perfect Day use DNA form cow’s milk and add yeast into it in order to make whey and casein through fermentation. But, it’s important to note that whey and casein are only some components of milk, and do not include other components such as fats, carbohydrates and complex sugar.

“Leveraging cell-based methods and thinking outside of the box, we were able to make breakthroughs that made it possible to make the real thing,” said Mr Rye.

Generating quality breast milk

Ms Lin said that the team’s main goal right now is to generate the best quality breast milk possible.

Currently, the company is looking at a dozen mothers from across the region, who have donated their breast milk so stem cells can be taken from.

But, given that the quality of breast milk differs based on factors like the mother’s health, upbringing, diet and more, Ms Lin says that the company requires hundreds more of such volunteers so that it can create milk with the perfect level of creaminess, good antibodies and high fat content.

The team is planning to introduce a glass of cow milk, cheese and butter, as well as a glass of breast milk to investors and potential customers like infant milk formula companies by next year April.

Besides that, it also has a goal to set up a pilot plant that will be able to produce 500 litres of milk daily by end of 2020. Ms Lin said that the plant will give the team the opportunity to present its technology to industry players.

When asked if consumers are ready for milk that is not produced from a mammal, Mr Rye said it’s solely about educating people milk that from stem cells is much more hygienic that milk from farms which may have hormones or chemicals included, as well as from unhealthy mothers.

“We are going to be showcasing over time that this is probably better milk than anything you’ve ever had,” he said.

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