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.”
Nurses left with no time for training amid “workforce crisis”
Disruption in health services has meant that face-to-face nursing courses had to move online
After they led the fight against Covid, nurses remain four times more likely to take their own lives than people working in any other profession. Michaela Nuttall, founder of the educational platform Learn With Nurses, tells us why they deserve better.
The impact of the pandemic on healthcare services has been immense, reads a 2021 BMJ report. For the over 500,000 nurses in the UK, Covid’s mental health toll has been intensified by physical and emotional exhaustion and an increased risk of burnout.
Despite interrupted training and fear of exposure to the virus, surveys have shown that nurses strived to provide excellent care and support for their patients and colleagues, sometimes at personal cost.
“Nurses were stretched more than ever during the pandemic,” says Michaela Nuttall, cardiovascular nurse specialist and founder of the online educational platform Learn With Nurses.
“At a time when they were forced to work extra hours, look after their kids and take care of their parents, they were left with little to no support and no time for training.”
The sudden disruption in health services along with staff shortages have meant that face-to-face nursing courses had to move online.
However, letting people have time off for training proved extremely difficult, says Nuttall. “Because nurses can’t be at work during training, many were left with no access to training.”
Having worked in cardiovascular disease training herself, Nuttall decided to host a Zoom meeting about the importance of blood pressure control at the start of the pandemic and invited people to join through social media nursing groups.
“I was really missing training and I wanted people not to forget about cardiovascular disease,” she explains. “I put the Zoom link online and about 200 people registered for the first session.
“The need was definitely there. So, I started working with other nurses to build a bigger platform and we went from nothing to everything in a very short space of time.”
Learn With Nurses, now a global online community of specialist nurses, provides free educational support to healthcare professionals and helps them improve the quality of care while promoting evidence-based clinical practice guidance.
“It is not meant to replace formal training,” the founder says. “Our aim is to make training much more accessible and give people a free platform where they can learn, ask questions and interact with other healthcare professionals. We now use a platform called MedAll instead of Zoom because it makes our job much easier and allows thousands of people to join and we try to have a relaxed style that almost feels like you’re talking to a friend over a coffee.”
The courses, delivered in bite-sized sessions of 30-40 minutes, cover a different subject each week, allowing nurses to understand some of the most common health conditions they treat in hospital.
“We’ve made a commitment at the beginning that we will always provide our courses without any barriers to learning,” Nuttall says.
“People tell us how much Learn With Nurses has helped them and although we are looking at memberships and donations to help us fund the training, we don’t want money to be a barrier.”
Nurses like Nuttall say that the NHS is still facing challenges. According to the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee, health services in England are currently facing “the greatest workforce crisis in their history” with the NHS losing millions of full-time equivalent days to staff sickness caused by anxiety, stress and depression.
“Nurses remain under extreme pressure,” says Nuttall. “Almost 90 per cent of them are female and they need our support more than ever.
“Our ambition is to give more visibility to all nurses, but particularly to those from minority backgrounds. I hope that through Learn With Nurses they will find a diverse community where they could feel represented and supported.”
Step us for breastfeeding: educate and support – WABA 2022
This year World Breastfeeding week’s theme is ‘Step us for breastfeeding: educate and support’.
The World Breastfeeding week (WABA) 2022, which takes place from the 1st of August until the 7th, focuses on strengthening the capacity of actors that have to protect, promote and support breastfeeding across different levels of society.
WABA’s aims to inform and educate governments, health systems, workplaces and communities to strengthen their capacity to provide and sustain breastfeeding-friendly environments for families in the post pandemic world.
Anwar Fazal, Chairperson at WABA, said: “World Breastfeeding week is a vibrant global movement that expands and connects the power of one with the power of many. Only by working together we can make the changes we need.”
Breastfeeding is key to sustainable development strategies post-pandemic, as it improves nutrition, ensures food security and reduces inequalities between and within countries.
The theme is aligned with the thematic area one of the WMW-SDG 2030 campaign which highlights the links between breastfeeding and good nutrition, food security and reduction of inequalities.
The World Health Assembly (WHA) aims to increase the global rate of exclusive breastfeeding to at least 50 per cent by 2050. This policy aims to increase attention to, investment in, and action for a set of cost-effective interventions and policies that can help Member States and their partners in improving exclusive breastfeeding rates among infant younger than six months.
Exclusive breastfeeding is a cornerstone of child survival and child health because it provides essential, irreplaceable nutrition for a child’s growth and development.
It serves as a child’s first immunisation, providing protection from respiratory infections, diarrhoeal disease, and other potentially life-threatening aliments.
Exclusive breastfeeding also has a protective effect against obesity and certain noncommunicable disease later in life.
Yet, much remains to be done to make exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life the norm for infant feeding. Globally, only 38 per cent of infants aged zero to six months are exclusively breastfed.
Recent analysis indicate that suboptimal breastfeeding practices, including non-exclusive breastfeeding, contribute to 11.6 per cent of mortality in children under five years of age.
Breastfeeding could be a powerful tool to meet the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as it can be linked to all of them.
Amal Omer-Salim, executive director at WABA, said: “By focusing on a broader context, longer timeframe and practical yet ambitious goals, we can create sustainable and engaging campaigns.”
Indian digital health platform on a mission to provide affordable family care
Over 75 per cent of women in India experience postpartum anxiety while 25 per cent struggle with postpartum depression
As the country recovers post-pandemic, we asked Carina Kohli, founder of the digital health platform HUMM, why India desperately needs affordable and accessible family healthcare.
Although 76 per cent of healthcare professionals in India use digital health records, gender-based discrimination remains a prevalent issue.
According to a study conducted in 2016 by researchers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the Indian Statistical Institute and Harvard University, only 37 per cent of women got access to healthcare compared with 67 per cent of men.
Recent figures show that 75 per cent of Indian women experience postpartum anxiety for up to 24 months post pregnancy while 73 per cent of them quit the workforce to start or raise a family.
When the pandemic hit, the country faced big question marks. A 2021 BMJ report found that Covid had a negative impact on the Indian healthcare system, with “the exaggeration of income inequality during lockdown expected to extend beyond”.
“I grew up thinking that healthcare is a human right,” says Carina Kohli, founder of HUMM, a healthtech company focusing on postpartum and postnatal care. “The reality is that in India, the majority of the population either don’t have access to healthcare or can’t afford it.
“I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was about 13 and I felt very isolated. I remember being very insecure and nervous and, aged 19, I started doing research on options for women’s health and fertility in India.”
At the peak of the pandemic Kohli and her team created a web application and launched Baby Space – a digital content and community platform for fertility, pregnancy and childcare.
“We grew that to about 16,000 people,” she says. “But in a country like India where we still deal with issues of affordability, geographical accessibility and infrastructure. Therefore, we realised that access to healthcare is a primary need and we decided to pivot and rebuild [part of the system].
“So we established HUMM to offer affordable unlimited family health care to mothers, families and organisations with a focus on postpartum, postnatal, neonatal and baby care.”
HUMM has a range of on-demand, solution-based health programmes as well as different tools with personalised insights, health plans and progress charts covering physical, mental and emotional health.
“Our incredible doctors and experts often chat with our users on social media and the HUMM app, answer their questions and essentially, build that trust,” Kohli explains.
“Telemedicine has been around in India for a little while and people are now more open to options and they’re more adaptable. They know that this can be a much more affordable and convenient option.”
Has the pandemic helped digital health technology in this regard? “Definitely. The pandemic has influenced consumer behaviour to a great extent,” the founder adds.
“There are still a lot of cultural barriers and people may not be always open about mental health or sexual health, but the response we’ve had has been really eye-opening and we found that couples felt less alone knowing that they had dedicated doctors and experts to speak to.”
The lower costs and the one-to-one consultations with experts are what keep users coming back and Kohli says that receiving positive feedback is by far the most rewarding feeling for her, as a founder.
“We have great doctors in our country and I think information and awareness will definitely help us grow,” she says.
“Our dream is to broaden access to healthcare services across the country because the need is definitely there. Currently, we are India-focused because it’s a huge market where 25 million babies are born every year. But we are also looking at neighbouring countries that deal with similar issues. In the next five to seven years, we might consider countries across Southeast Asia.”
Kohli would love to see more openness to femtech. Although there is a growing interest in the sector, women’s healthcare remains underfunded. “I really don’t like when people talk about women’s health as a niche,” the founder says.
“We are 50 per cent of the population and there is so much we need to do.”
For more info, visit hummcare.com.
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