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Scaling Up the Production of Cell Cultured Human Milk

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In response to growing environmental and animal welfare concerns, cellular agriculture is increasingly being explored as a more sustainable means of producing a range of products traditionally derived from livestock. Eighteen months ago, the world’s first cell cultured human milk was created by 108Labs. Since then, the company has been working to move the field from lab to factory by building the world’s first autonomous facility producing cell cultured human milk products.

To learn more about how the cell cultured human milk is produced and how it compares to mothers’ milk, Technology Networks spoke to Shayne Guiliano, CEO of 108Labs. In this interview, Shayne also highlights the impact that scaling up the technology will have and shares his thoughts on what could be in store for the future of cellular agriculture.

Anna MacDonald (AM): What have been the major driving forces behind the interest in and development of cell cultured human milk?

Shayne Guiliano (SG):
The milk project started from a curiosity at 108Labs in 2013 about whether it was possible to milk mammary cells instead of cows, and things really took off in early 2020 when we created the first scalable cell cultured milk because suddenly everyone who thought it was impossible had to reconsider. We self-funded the project all the way to the first cell cultured milk from 2013-2020, because no one thought it was possible.

For consumers, I think mothers are excited for an option that is closer to breast milk. I think everyone would like to see less reliance on animal agriculture, and bovine milk is an obvious big win for reducing animal enslavement to the food system. The impact of animal milk agriculture on global warming gives cell cultured milk an opportunity to impact the world in many ways. There is also a big investor movement towards plant-based and cell-based food alternatives ever since ImpossibleTM Burger hit it big, so the world seems ready for food innovation suddenly. Cell cultured meat is kind of leading the way too, creating a general awareness of things being created with cells. I think commodity cell cultured milk is maybe easier to solve than meat in the long run, because with milk you don't eat the cells.

AM: Can you explain the basics of how the milk is produced?

Isolate mammary cells, grow them up, put them in our bioreactor using our milk production protocol, and then start collecting milk every day a little while later. The cells do all the work, we just had to figure out the recipe to keep them happy, which took many years but now it's almost taken for granted. Of course these cells can make milk if you can get your hands on enough of them.

AM: What challenges have you faced moving the field from lab to factory? What advantages will the move bring?

The primary challenge in cell cultured milk is that we can't use the same bioreactor technology that has been used for all other biotechnologies. Usually, yeast or Escherichia coli or Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells are grown in large suspension vats, but our cells require 3D structure in order to organize themselves into what are sort of artificial mammary glands before they can make full milk. And no one has scaled up this bioreactor technology to therapeutic or food scale. There are challenges to using larger containers with the 3D structure we need, so we need massively parallel, autonomous production systems whether we can enlarge bioreactors or not. And managing the bioreactors manually is not scalable, maybe a single tech can run 30 bioreactors if they don't take vacation. Manual operation also increases the chance of bioreactor loss from contamination and it actually disrupts the cells to harvest them how we have to now.

What our factory design is taking advantage of is that our bioreactor is continuously productive, meaning, once you grow up the cells and get the milk production started, they keep making milk over time, so there are major savings if you can automate the management of that continuous production. Having a well-designed hardware and software stack makes it possible to create a system that is continuously scalable, and easily replicable around the world. And using AI and continuous monitoring will make it so very little human guidance is needed for choosing when to harvest, for instance, or add more carbon or nitrogen sources to the cell feed. Once we build out our "vertical slice" proving we can automate front-to-back production for 2 bioreactors, we can start the scale up to 250 million bioreactors to replace bovine milk production worldwide by 2040. By the way, if we had that infrastructure ready now to support the cells, it would only take 50 days to replace all cow's milk production worldwide, thanks to the wonders of exponential cell doubling.

AM: How does the cultured milk compare nutritionally to mothers’ milk? What about the microbiome?

Actually, our list of molecules is really stunning, and if you break it down into the components it's clear that we will have many of the special benefits of mothers’ milk because we have all the major beneficial molecules. We have no microbiome because we produce it in sterile conditions, but we have all the special molecules that help support a healthy microbiome, including the world's first fully diverse HMO (human milk oligosaccharide) set and all the beneficial proteins. 108Labs also has developed novel milk secretory antibody biotechnology that will make it possible to really replicate much of the immunological benefits of mother's antibodies.

AM: Can you tell us more about the therapeutic potential of the secretory antibodies produced?

Well, secretory antibodies can save lives by preventing pathogen infection and they can support a healthy microbiome. For newborns who can't make their own secretory antibodies, they really could prevent a lot of suffering and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimate that the lives of over 820,000 children under 5 years old could be saved each year if all children 0–23 months were optimally breastfed, providing them with access to all the immunological benefits of breast milk, of which secretory antibodies are a major part.

Secretory antibodies are really, really special. Secretory IgA (SIgA) actually coats any part of your body exposed to air. Your body will make grams of SIgA today, and in every breath you take and bite you eat pathogens fall into a sea of mucosal SIgA that captures them to keep you safe before they can infect you. But before you are six months old, you can't make SIgA, and some people lose the ability to make it when having cancer treatment or just being an elder, and some can never can make SIgA at all, so there's a lot of lives to protect.

AM: Where do you see the future of cellular agriculture headed?

There are so many cells out there waiting to be put on a pedestal and used to create things to build and feed and cure. For example, cell cultured wood... why must we cut down forests to produce wood? There are not enough forests in the world, we need to learn to grow wood faster from cells. There are many more cell types waiting to be exploited other than meat and milk. 108Labs has thought of many, many that we hope to develop one day. They are all around us, just look around.

Shayne Guiliano was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.