You read that correctly. Of all things to consider a “new commodity” breast milk has quickly gained ground in the biotech industry.
Specifically this “commodity” is being harvested from nursing mothers (hundreds of them) and then concentrated into a high-protein product. This is then fed to premature babies in the neonatal intensive care units…the cost per baby has been recorded in the THOUSANDS.
A recent article found on Bradenton.com (The Bradenton Herald online newspaper) dug into this new phenomenon of breast milk as a commodity. Coined as one of the “Newest Frontiers in the Biotechnology Industry,” life science venture capitalists are already beginning to claim a stake. Prolacta Bioscience of California says that it has already received nearly $50M in VC funding according to the article.
“This is white plasma,” said Scott Elster, the company’s chief executive in comparing milk to blood plasma, which has long been collected from donors and made into valuable medical products.
Prolacta makes a fortifier rich in protein, fats and minerals, and can be used to supplement breast milk. It costs about $180 an ounce, and a baby would typically consume $10,000 worth over several weeks. Generally, the cost is paid by the hospital or insurers and not by the parents.
…And this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers have said that breast milk has much more potential for therapeutic remedies to treat things like intestinal and infectious diseases. Recent studies show that based on the complex sugars in breast milk, this could help nourish certain bacteria in the digestive system that is important to health.
Obviously the opponents of this practice are uneasy with regard to how the “product” is derived. The worry stems from companies who try to capture excess breast milk and make products that would be too expensive for babies and leave less milk for milk banks that are non-profit.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that because of “potent benefits of human milk,” all premature babies should receive breast milk if not from their mothers, then from milk banks. But there is not enough donor milk for that, experts say. This is in part due to the fact that many women do not know that they can donate or sell excess milk. So is this the “breast” thing to happen in biotech this year?