Cell-based dairy and human breast milk: tackling sustainability and availability

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5 min read
AUTHOR: Candice Krieger

Bio-foodtech start-up Wilk is redefining the dairy industry with its production of animal and human lab-grown milk.

It is believed to be the first company in the world to create both animal and human milk cultured from mammary cells, making it 100% farm free. By culturing milk in this way, Wilk is addressing the long-term ecological, ethical and practical needs of the dairy industry.

Tomer Aizen, Wilk CEO, explains: “1,000 litres of water are needed to produce a single litre of milk. With conventional milking methods, this industry simply won’t maintain a sufficient supply of milk (or its derivative products) for many years to come. The challenge is substantial and consequential. We have the power and opportunity to change the current situation for the best.”

According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, agriculture and wastewater management are two of the five most contributing industries that account for 98% of humanity’s methane emissions. Agriculture creates 40% to 50% of global methane emissions, which are primarily the result of ruminant animals (principally cows and sheep), farming practices, and rice production. These emissions come from millions of farms of different sizes and farming practices around the world.

Cow’s milk – one of our most reliable sources of efficient protein and calcium – accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Dairy is considered to be one of the most polluting industries.

“The dairy industry really needs our help,” says Aizen, who previously managed Ethicon, a significant business unit at Johnson & Johnson, specialising in surgical technologies and solutions.

“It is in need of an immediate solution to the traditional milking methods, thus drastically reducing air pollution and immensely decreasing water use. We are at the doorstep of a new, different era for humans and animal lives.”

Aizen’s comments will be likely welcomed by animal rights activists and those who question the ethical side of farming, which has come under fire over claims that cows are impregnated by artificial insemination without respite and have their newborns taken away at birth, while male cows are often slaughtered for meat soon after birth. “We are 100% farm-free and have found a way that will enable future generations to enjoy the benefits of real milk without harming the environment or harming the cow, and without compromising on all the nutritional values of real milk. It’s win-win for the industry, the consumers and the planet”.

Founded in 2020, Wilk (formerly BioMilk) produces cell-based milk secreted from mammary epithelial cells, which are found in the mammary glands of both humans and animals. Its industrial process is based on more than 10 years of proprietary research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Last year, Wilk announced its collaboration with The Central Bottling Company – CBC (the parent company of Coca Cola Israel), and owner of the international dairy company Tara. The collaboration includes an investment of up to $2 million to expedite the arrival on the market of products based on cultured milk. They have the exclusive distribution agreement for Israel and South Africa.

The company is also in talks with some of the world’s other major manufacturers and distributors and hopes to bring its animal milk ingredients to market in 2024, with breastmilk to follow.

“The ‘W’ in Wilk stands for ‘WE’ and represents how, by collaborating with industry partners, we can all work together to establish sustainable means of production that can guarantee the continued supply of milk and dairy-based products for future generations. Once they see the huge potential, it’s a complete game changer,” notes Aizen, a former commander in the Israeli navy.

Cell-based breast milk

The company is also working to address the limited availability (especially in the developing world) of safe human breast milk. Despite WHO recommendations for exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a child’s life, fewer than 50% of babies are breastfed for multiple reasons. By producing authentic breast milk and breast milk components from breast tissue cells, Wilk is aiming to provide as many infants as possible the benefits that come from breast milk. “This is the next closest way – many formulas contain mainly bovine or plant-based components, there is nothing that comes from the actual breast.”

Wilk takes cells from breast tissue that have either been shed in fresh breast milk – with consent from the lactating mother – or from excess breast tissue recovered from breast reduction surgeries. Both procedures are conducted within the ethical committee approval (Helsinki Approval) that Wilk holds with Beilinson and Ichilov Hospitals in Israel, and hold the corresponding consent from the patient and the lactating mother. Mothers get compensated accordingly.

Aizen says they have had very positive responses from breastfeeding associations that support and promote breast milk as the primary food for babies. “It is important to understand that there is no comparison to breast milk. So understanding that you will be able to feed your baby with real breast milk ingredients is a complete game-changer.”

Is Wilk’s milk vegan? “Our milk doesn’t contain the cells, but the secretion of the cells, and in years from now, we won’t need to get cells from the animals – we will have our own cell bank.

“We are a solution for vegans – you will get all the nutritional benefits that milk gives you without harming the animal or the environments, so I think the vegan community will want to embrace us.”

Wilk is publicly listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

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