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Is cell-based milk our environmentally friendly alternative to breastfeeding?

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By replicating milk-producing cells of humans, an Israeli start-up is developing a sustainable breastfeeding alternative to offer nutritional support to infants. 

Wilk develops technologies for producing cell-based milk secreted from mammary epithelial cells, which are found in the mammary glands of both humans and animals. After collecting the mammary gland tissue, the milk-producing cells are isolated from other cells. By creating an ideal and controlled environment, the company then grows cells in a bioreactor and use them to produce sterile, safe, personalised milk ingredients.

In 2021 the Israeli food tech went public on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE), becoming the world’s first publicly traded cell-based milk company. Their aim is to help those women who are unable to breastfeed and create an environmentally friendly alternative to animal dairy.

“Breast milk can affect your mind, your brain development, your neuronal development and basically change your behaviour,” says Dr Nurit Argov-Argaman, the company’s CTO from the Department of Animal Sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “So the best way to feed babies is with their mother’s milk.

“But, there is no technology right now, that can really mimic the complexity of breast milk in terms of the values that it provides. Not just its nutritional values, but also its bioactivities that are very hard to replicate or replace with other foods.

“With our products, we want to deliver a similar alternative to milk compared to what is available right now. Because this is going to be the next generation of breastfeeding without women and we want to support families and communities in bringing the infant formula world much closer to the real thing.”

As an animal scientist, Argov-Argaman has been working on milk, breastfeeding and lactation since 2006 and during this time, she and her team have learned a lot about the challenges of both breastfeeding and the dairy industry as a whole.

“We asked ourselves how we could utilise and leverage our studies in order to improve infant nutrition and make a difference,” she says.

“When I started, the studies and most of the data on mammary glands collected from the lab were very biased towards developments and pathologists. On the other hand, there was a lot of data on milk, as a raw material. So lactation and culturing cells from mammary glands in order to produce milk were things that we couldn’t find [in previous studies].

“This was probably the main obstacle that we had to work around because we needed to find and stabilise the system in order to come up with the technology [of utilising mammary epithelial cells] that we use today,” the CTO explains.

With a growing population estimated to hit 8.6 billion by mid-2030, sustainability and environmental impacts are issues that have to be considered carefully.

“We need to think about the price the environment is paying and how we can reduce and cut greenhouse gas emissions,” thinks Dr Argov-Argaman. “It’s obvious that we will not be able to count only on the traditional dairy manufacturing practices, so we will have to have other alternatives.”

Wilk’s aim is to produce a variety of proteins and components all at once by using the same system. In other words, it can be described as a B2B company that cultivates specific milk ingredients and components that can be then delivered and incorporated in the products of the infant formula industry and the dairy industry.

Dr Argov-Argaman says that: “The easiest way to think about this is by looking at the vegan dairy alternatives. They have usually lower nutritional value, so the texture, the taste and even the way it looks like are not comparable to real dairy products.

“So we can provide our components to the industry in order to improve their products. These ingredients are from a non-animal production system and can be easily incorporated into a vegan alternative, keeping the product vegan and animal-free. The same thing would happen to breast-milk substitutes.”

The company is in its early stages, but the world is getting closer and closer to seeing this technology being widely used. Wilk has already partnerships with one of the biggest dairy companies in Israel and is currently working at expanding them further.

“We’re targeting the most expensive unique, bioactive components, not in terms of the price, but in terms of the nutritional value and the effects they have on the health of the consumer, from infants to kids and adults,” the CTO adds.

So what is she hoping to see in the next fiver years?

“I think we’ll have more capabilities to increase the efficiency of our system and to approach specialised food ingredients. Our dream is to really have an impact on kids and infants because this is close to everybody’s heart and sure, and everybody can get it.

“But we also hope to make a difference for the adults and elderly people out there by offering affordable and high-quality food. All this will be down the road.”

 

Sorina Mihaila is the Femtech World editor, covering technology, research and innovation in women's health. Sorina is also a contributor for the neuro-rehabilitation magazine NR Times.

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What Iceland can teach the world about gender equality in tech

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Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir speaking at the Nordic Women in Tech Awards in Reykjavík

The recent surge in artificial intelligence (AI) is reviving the tech industry, but gender bias is preventing women from joining the sector. Sorina Mihaila travelled to Reykjavík to find out what needs to change.

When, as a 24-year-old lawyer, Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir ran as the secretary of the Independence Party in Iceland she had one goal: to make an impact.

Eight years later, in a packed conference hall in her native Reykjavík, Sigurbjörnsdóttir, now Iceland’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, maintained she has the same mission.

“I was lucky to be born in a world where a female was president of Iceland,” she told a crowd of 200+ delegates at the Nordic Women in Tech Awards, referring to Iceland’s former president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first elected female head of state in the world.

“Icelandic women have changed the world and I believe we can do it again.”

In the light of October’s “kvennafrí”, the country’s first full-day women’s strike since 1975 when women stopped work in protest at gender inequality, Sigurbjörnsdóttir echoed many Icelandic women’s view when she said equality is still far from being achieved. 

“Iceland has been ranked the best country in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum for 14 years in a row. But we need to do more,” she explained.

Touching on the role models that helped her become the person that she is today, Sigurbjörnsdóttir told the audience that she believes in innovation and she believes progress in innovation means recognising women for their contributions.

It was truly an empowering atmosphere – a beautiful way of celebrating women in the world’s most gender-equal country.

As I’ve come to realise during my time in Iceland, Icelanders are receptive to innovation and therefore adoption of new technology in this small island nation happens quickly. Focusing on women in tech feels, in this context, not only necessary but essential.

One organisation that caught my eye in this sense was WomenTechIceland, the non-profit behind this year’s Nordic Women in Tech Awards.

Started as a Facebook group, WomenTechIceland was officially registered as a non-profit organisation in 2021 by founders Paula Gould and Valenttina Griffin and dedicated its work towards encouraging equality in the tech industry.

Since 2017, the organisation has been working with visiting businesses, dignitaries, personas and influential voices in tech to host special events, panel discussions and online events to connect Iceland’s tech ecosystem with the global tech community.

Sigurbjörnsdóttir echoed many Icelandic women’s view when she said equality is still far from being achieved

Reykjavík-based venture capital firm Crowberry Capital is too on a mission to support women building businesses around technology advances.

As the only major Nordic venture fund headed by an all-female team, the firm has achieved recognition for focusing on backing founders who have traditionally not had access to capital.

In 2021 the company, led by founders Hekla Arnardottir, Helga Valfells and Jenny Ruth Hrafnsdottir, launched a US$90m fund to invest in technology start-ups in the Nordics, with a focus on supporting businesses in emerging tech sectors, with a particular emphasis on encouraging inclusivity.

Their reason? “To demonstrate that the region can also show the way in terms of inventive venture support.”

Whether it’s IT, sustainability, femtech or digital health, the tech industry unarguably needs more gender diversity to continue thriving.

For starters, gender diversity encourages divergent ways of thinking, which can improve quality in the ideas output. This, in turn, drives innovation and growth.

Countries like Iceland have shown us that improving gender equality is a great place to start, but there’s still some way to go.

Women must be able to see that they can have an exciting career in technology and succeed. That means fostering an inclusive work culture, advocating for better representation and introducing more family-friendly policies.

As minister Sigurbjörnsdóttir rightly put it on stage: “If we want to make an impact, we need to engage, participate, campaign and put words into action.”

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‘I went undiagnosed for 15 years’ – the researcher leading the fight against endometriosis

The lack of research in endometriosis and her experience of the disease have prompted Dora Koller to study the condition herself

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Dora Koller, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Barcelona and Yale University School of Medicine

When Dora Koller noticed her first endometriosis symptoms, she was 14, but it wasn’t until she turned 29 that she got a diagnosis.

“They say diagnosis time is between four and 11 years. In my case, it was 15,” she explains.

One might have thought her background would have made a difference – Dora is a postdoctoral researcher in computational genomics at Yale University and the University of Barcelona. However, it didn’t.

“I had to keep insisting because I knew something was wrong,” she says.

“I understand biology, but I can’t imagine how it must be for someone who doesn’t have my background.”

One in 10 women of reproductive age has endometriosis, yet often their primary care doctors do not know what it is and the specialists to whom they are sent are ill-informed.

Vast numbers of women go undiagnosed or under-treated, with some scientists arguing endometriosis is an example of “undone science”. However, Koller thinks the issue goes beyond research.

“Often patients with endometriosis get diagnosed when they present with infertility and the fact that women are not properly represented in the medical profession is partly responsible for that,” she says.

“Gynaecology has been a very male-dominated field and [conditions like endometriosis] have not been a priority. The priority was for us to procreate. When that didn’t happen, they may have started thinking about what’s happening to us. Otherwise, pain wasn’t important.”

The under-representation of women, the lack of research in endometriosis and her experience of the disease have prompted Koller to study the condition herself.

“I work in the field of psychiatry, but having endometriosis made me interested in knowing as much as possible about it,” she says.

“I wanted to connect the two and understand the link between endometriosis and mental health.”

Her latest research – the largest epidemiological study to date on the psychiatric factors that can accompany endometriosis – has demonstrated that depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are not only a result of the chronic pain endometriosis generates, but also have their own underlying genetic mechanisms.

“It’s a great result, because now we can say that it’s not women’s fault.

“For a long time, researchers thought endometriosis was just a gynaecological disease — that it didn’t affect anything but female reproduction, and so women were often only treated when they presented with infertility.

“Now, we have to acknowledge that the effects of endometriosis extend far beyond reproduction.”

Although she thinks understanding the impact of endometriosis is important, Koller says diagnosis and treatment should remain a priority.

“The fact that it’s 2023 and the only available diagnostic method for endometriosis is surgery is unacceptable.”

‘This is not just a conversation between scientists’

There is still a long way to go to address the challenges in diagnosing and managing endometriosis, but by raising awareness the researcher believes we can open up the conversation.

“I always like to talk about this based on what happened 10 years ago with breast cancer,” she says.

“We saw women and campaigners talking about breast cancer and now everyone is aware how common it is. I think something similar is happening with endometriosis.”

However, not all countries are involved in this discussion. According to the World Health Organization, in many places, the general public and healthcare providers are not aware that life-altering pelvic pain is not normal, leading to a normalisation and stigmatisation of endometriosis.

“The change is happening mostly in the West, but we need to make more efforts to bring it everywhere and raise awareness everywhere,” Koller agrees.

“Most of the things [we are seeing] appear in English or Spanish which makes it harder to reach people who don’t speak those languages. We need to translate that information to other languages to reach as many people as possible.

“Scientists, myself included, also need to work on translating the information to the public, because often we’re using difficult language that people can’t understand.

“This is not just a conversation between scientists. This is a conversation that needs to involve patients and the general public.”

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Female empowerment: A bra for the pelvic floor? Yes, please

Your pelvic floor is essential to daily function. So why are we still not talking about it?

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We know how vital your bra is. What if we told you there’s one for your pelvic floor? Sorina Mihaila speaks to the founders behind the groundbreaking innovation.

Pelvic floor health is a critical aspect of a woman’s overall wellbeing. The pelvic floor muscles, located at the base of the pelvis, consists of muscles and connective tissues that support important organs, including the bladder, bowel and reproductive organs.

Weak or dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles can lead to a range of health issues, including urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse and sexual dysfunction.

According to UChicago Medicine, at least one in three women will experience a pelvic floor disorder in her lifetime, with one in four over the age of 20 suffering from pelvic floor symptoms.

Despite this, a UK survey found that 69 per cent of women had not spoken to their health professional about their pelvic floor health. In many cultures, it is still considered taboo or embarrassing, leading to shame and a lack of discussion about it.

Anna Maria Ullmann, Yair Kira and Kaven Baessler, founders of the Berlin-based start-up YoniCore, think the stigma and lack of awareness are the biggest obstacles preventing women from seeking help.

“Many women are simply not used to take care of their pelvic floor and look at conditions affecting their pelvic floor,” says Ullmann.

With little innovation happening in this space, the trio is committed to disrupting the market and improving the quality of life of millions of women. Their product? A small device that supports the pelvic floor and improves bladder control with one press of a button.

“We call it the bra for the pelvic floor,” says Ullmann. “Women with pelvic floor dysfunctions are often not able to enjoy everything they used to so with YoniCore, we wanted to solve that and help them get their lives back.”

The device, which inserts into the vagina like a tampon, inflates to fit a woman’s unique body structure and provide optimal support. Used with the accompanying app, it also promises to help users do their pelvic floor exercises and strengthen their muscles.

Empowerment and education

While the immediate relief is important, Ullmann says their real mission goes much further than that.

“We want to come and say, Hey, it’s okay to talk about your pelvic floor, it’s okay to take care of it and put it on our priority list.

Anna Maria Ullmann and Yair Kira, founders of YoniCore

“We think this is an issue of education and a societal problem. As a business, we really want to be part of this societal shift and change how women perceive their body.

“We aim to build a community to empower women to educate themselves and learn about their body and create the biggest database on pelvic floor health,” she continues.

“We believe that there are many other conditions we could look at. With a big database, we can start treating other diseases and for us, that’s really empowering.”

Kira, her co-founder, acknowledges the challenges of bringing the product to market, but he’s optimistic.

“Not getting enough support is frustrating, but we are hoping to fulfil our mission regardless” he explains.

“We are already seeing changes in society. Women are a lot more comfortable using menstrual cups and tracking their cycle. My mother is in her 70s and she uses a smartwatch,” he laughs.

“Here in Berlin, there are many companies developing products to change the way our society deals with women’s health. So, we are really proud to be part of that.”

The entrepreneurs have big plans. After bagging the Deep Tech Award Berlin last month, the duo announced a collaboration with the health tech company Thaumatec to build an MVP for their application and get support with building the first version of the YoniCore app.

“We are also in fundraising,” adds Ullmann. “We are trying to go through this with more validation and we are also focusing on kicking off our marketing strategies to build this community that we think will be very important in our mission with YoniCore.

“In addition, we are focusing on going into R&D with our suppliers that will then produce the product.”

If approved as a medical device, the futuristic pelvic floor bra could be available as soon as 2025.

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