Rethinking Healthcare

One day, humans may not need breasts

One day, humans may not need breasts

Posting in Healthcare

Breast milk -- health workers say babies need it, parents rave about it, and surrogates are giving it away for free. But will technology render it obsolete?

Parents have fed their babies formula milk since the mid 1800's, when Nestlé debuted ‘Farine Lactée.’ The formula industry enjoyed a boon of good press for nearly a hundred years, as their product was seen as convenient, cheaper than staying home from work to nurse, and modern.

In the 1970's and 1980's international health agencies began to promote the health benefits of breast milk. Mothers in the industrialized world returned to the practice, and the formula industry shifted its target demographic to developing countries. Though many countries heavily regulate the industry' advertising, researchers estimated this year in the British Medical Journal that, "Currently, suboptimal breastfeeding is associated with over a million deaths each year and 10% of the global disease burden in children."

Human breast milk has unique ingredients that protect babies against illness. They're special sugars called human milk oligosaccharides (HMO). And until now, they've been too prohibitively expensive ($1000 pre gram) to put into formula.

University of Illinois researchers announced in a new report online today in the journal Microbial Cell Factories that they've found a work-around. They've figured out a way to synthesize the most common HMO, called 2FL, in the lab. They did this by engineering a strain of E. coli bacteria to produce the sugar for them, quickly and cheaply. The researchers will next be testing whether the manufactured 2FL can be added to formula milk.

This new research may be the most promising breast milk work-around yet, but its certainly not the first. I've previously reported on efforts to produce goats that synthesize the human breast milk ingredients and pre- and pro-biotics supplements that can improve formula quality.

If infant formula technology truly succeeds at reaching equal benefits to breast milk, I predict we're about to see an interesting publicity war over the continued need for the real thing.

Photo: EdenPictures/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure