MyMilk and the science of breastfeeding

How two alumnae are optimizing the original nutrient

Alumni

Date: March 10, 2019
Source: 
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 15

Not all breast milk is created equal. While many pregnant mothers intend to nurse their babies, only a fraction are able to do so. Often, low milk supply, infections, pain, and other complications get in the way.

Drs. Ravid Shechter-Ushpizin and Sharon Haramati, who became friends as graduate students at the Weizmann Institute in neurobiology, made this discovery a few years ago, while on maternity leave at the same time.

“We called this initiative our ‘second PhD,’” says Dr. Shechter-Ushpizin. “We basically learned everything there is to know about breast milk—in academia, in the healthcare system—and soon understood that it could be a meaningful diagnostic tool for supporting breastfeeding success.”

Their research revealed that, before giving birth, 90% of pregnant mothers say they intend to nurse, and over 83% of mothers do in fact start nursing upon giving birth. But six out of 10 of those mothers stop before they had planned to, with low milk supply being the most prevalent complication.

Entrepreneurial in spirit, the duo founded MyMilk in 2014, to assist mothers who are struggling to nurse their babies and to address the dearth of resources to help them monitor their own breastfeeding and milk supply—both in terms of diagnosing difficulties and measuring milk quality. As scientists, the Weizmann alumnae also recognized the potential of human milk as a powerful data source which, like blood, can be studied at different stages and deviations.

“Even though there is a lot of information regarding this amazing fluid for research purposes, none of that was translated to clinical, personal use for the mother or the healthcare provider,” says Dr. Shechter-Ushpizin.

From the land of milk and honey

Their products include personal kits that are sent to the MyMilk lab in Herzliya. With these kits, mothers can test whether their babies are feeding well and if they are producing enough milk, assess the milk’s nutritional value, and identify infections or other problems. The company is now piloting the second generation of its hand-held device for on-the-spot analysis—requiring just six drops of human milk.

If a nursing mother is having pain, for example, an evaluation of her milk can identify the cause—discriminating between an obstruction of milk flow or an active infection. It can even diagnose whether the pathogen is fungal or bacterial, down to the specific strain—and from there MyMilk professionals provide personalized treatment solutions.

Because the technology can be used as a preventative tool, providing early identification of delayed lactogenesis (the initiation of lactation) and low milk supply can enable effective intervention. Untreated or inaccurate management of breast pain or milk supply establishment can lead to recurrent complications, discomfort, reduced milk volume, and early weaning—earlier than the mother had planned. 

“We’re not in the business of criticizing women that decide not to breastfeed, but the fact is most mothers choose to breastfeed,” says Dr. Haramati. “And so this is what MyMilk is here for: to help those 80 to 90% of mothers who do nurse to achieve their own breastfeeding goals, and with less of a struggle.”

Most MyMilk clients are based in Israel, where they carry out their pilot programs and tests, though they have some presence in the United States and Europe, and plan to continue expanding. MyMilk is also partnering with physicians at various healthcare centers, including Stanford Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and companies developing breast milk-related drugs, including a drug for premature infants that is made, in part, using mother’s milk.

They are also working closely with the Ministry of Health and Magen David Adom to establish the first human milk bank in Israel. Once it is in place—early this year—MyMilk will provide testing services for it.

‘Born and bred’ at Weizmann

The scientists agree that their years of training at the Weizmann Institute—both studied in the Department of Neurobiology, Dr. Shechter-Ushpizin under Prof. Michal Schwartz, and Dr. Haramati under Prof. Alon Chen—helped them become the co-CEOs they are today.

“We gained many tools for critical thinking, for designing both research and work approaches, for dealing with and overcoming failure,” says Dr. Haramati. “Both of us undertook research that allowed us to be very innovative and use novel approaches in order to get results.”

“We needed to see clearly through successes and failures—and in research you experience a lot of failures—so this translates well into being an entrepreneur,” Dr. Haramati continues.

And while they are not interested in debating whether or not breast is best, for those women who do choose to undertake this commitment, MyMilk aims to help them make the best of it.