While “breast” has long been “best” when it comes to feeding babies, a California company this week launched the first known venture to commercialize human donor breast milk and develop its use for sick children.
“Human milk has 100,000 different components and we only really know what a few thousand of them are and what they do,” Elena Medo, CEO of Prolacta Bioscience, said on Wednesday.
“It is an enormous area of discovery. I am sure there is a reason for every one of those components, and I’d like to know half of that in my lifetime,” Medo said.
Human breast milk, with its combination of minerals, digestive enzymes and antibodies, has long been credited with keeping babies healthier. But until now breast milk donation has largely been confined to altruistic mothers and a handful of nonprofit milk banks that collect milk on a local basis and provide it to premature and sick infants whose mothers cannot nurse their newborns themselves.
Prolacta Bioscience has opened what it bills as the first large-scale centralized facility for processing donor breast milk in the United States. The small start-up company in Monrovia, 15 miles west of Los Angeles, is also thought to be the first with a mission to maximize the properties of human milk for pharmaceutical use.
“To our knowledge, this is the first and only facility of its kind in the world,” said Medo.
Prolacta will first use its facility to buy donated breast milk from independent milk banks and hospitals across the United States, pasteurize it at its Monrovia plants and sell it back to hospitals to treat very-low-birth-weight babies.
FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
Its next market will be babies with heart defects who need surgery and are at risk for infection, and then children with cancer and those undergoing chemotherapy who suffer very upset stomachs.
Medo also hopes to develop human-milk-based therapies to treat necrotizing enterocolitis, a gastrointestinal disease that is one of the leading killers of premature babies.
Some studies have suggested that human breast milk could be beneficial in the treatment of some cancers, notably Prostate cancer, but Medo said Prolacta would not pursue the adult market.
Prolacta’s mission has disturbed traditional breast milk donor organizations in the United States, which have been providing neonatal-intensive care units since 1943.
The nonprofit Human Milk Banking Association of North America said in a statement that “it does not condone, and in fact, questions the practice of buying and selling human milk as a commodity.”
It said introducing the profit motive might pressure women and medical institutions to provide milk to a bank regardless of the needs of their own babies.
Medo said Prolacta had no wish to compete with existing milk banks and said its products were not intended to replace a mother’s own milk for her baby.
“Human breast milk is really an incredible therapy. Let’s try to develop processes where we can preserve every bit of its nutrients and the potent antiviral and all of its disease fighting properties,” Medo said.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.