This is the latest in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I talk to the CEO of Medolac, which helps preterm babies get the breast milk they need, as well as avoid a life-threatening illness.
Premature babies all over the world are dying from a terrible disease, but the National Institutes of Health says a diet of exclusively human breast milk can help stop it. I spoke with one entrepreneur who is working to make that milk supply more available.
Elena Medo, Chairman and CEO of Medolac Laboratories, says research shows there isn't enough safe, human breast milk to go around, and she wants to make it a viable option for hospitals everywhere. The NIH cites studies that back this up - saying there's a "limited supply" of breast milk where it's needed most - in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs). Human breast milk is vital in stopping necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), an intestinal disease that is very dangerous to babies born too early.
The NIH says around 10 to 11 percent of all deliveries in the U.S. are premature. Johns Hopkins University researchers say 5-10 percent of preterm babies are struck by NEC. They also say nearly 50 percent of these babies die from the ailment. The math indicates that thousands of babies per year are dying from NEC in the U.S.
"Preterm babies need four times more protein than mother's milk has," says Medo. "Normally, they would be getting high amounts of proteins, minerals, and all the things they need to grow from one pound to full term, through the placenta."
Since they don't have that supply though, nurses give them some human milk, but also a protein fortifier made from cow's milk. The big problem though is that it's not enough nutrition to stop NEC in many cases.
"Studies show a dramatic difference between babies who received mother's milk with a protein fortifier and babies who received high protein from just mother's milk," says Medo. "The latter seemed to have a protective effect against NEC, the second leading killer of preterm babies. Of babies who contract NEC, about half will die from the first time they get it. If they survive, they quite often lose a substantial part of their intestines due to infection. Preterm babies who receive just human milk (without the cow milk), either from mom or from mom and donor milk, have a much greater chance of survival, and surviving in a healthy way."
A Mission to Provide Mother's Milk Everywhere
Medo's mission is to set up a system to preserve and provide donor breast milk on a large scale, so it reaches NICUs all over the U.S. (and eventually the world). Right now, she says, many preterm babies don't get it. Medo also says what is available is often rationed to only the most at-risk babies. But that leaves many susceptible to NEC.
In order to get the milk to all the hospitals, Medolac partnered with Mother's Milk Cooperative, the only milk bank in the world exclusively owned by its donors. And the donors get a good perk. If their milk is tested for safety and it's proven they are qualified to donate milk, they get paid.
"Last year we paid out a million dollars to donors," Medo says. "The economic impact this has on families is amazing. Mothers feel that they have a very valuable possession in this milk, and if they're pumping a lot, and they have surplus milk, why not go ahead and join the co-op?"
Not only is it tough to deliver all that donor milk, there are hurdles to preserving and sterilizing it. Medo says the typical "freeze or refrigerate" storage method results in a storage shelf life too short to be used for a clinical setting. It also means there's no way to provide a standardized, hospital-grade sterile breast milk supply. As recently as a few years ago, commercially sterile infant formula was mandated by the FDA and the World Health Organization for all hospital neo-natal intensive care units.
"We think it should be the same with human milk," Medo says. Medo says her team is developing a processing method that renders milk "stable for three years" and "commercially sterile," meaning critically ill babies with compromised immune systems will be less at risk of getting ill from it.
Perfect for Underdeveloped Regions
Ideally, Medo says, she would like to see Medolac, which is actually a public benefit corporation, filling the gap in situations where mothers are not able to provide sufficient nutrition for their preterm babies. She says it's especially needed in underdeveloped regions of the world where mothers may not be able to stay with their baby in the event of a hospital transfer.
"There are over 15 million preterm babies born globally every year. We're talking to global health organizations like UNICEF and others on the humanitarian side of things. It's important for our management and board to consider the social impact of everything we do, and not just have a single mindedness of profit and bottom line."
Thus far, Medolac has served 5,000 babies and 1.5 million ounces of donated, processed human breast milk. While they currently stand at 6000+ paid milk donors spread across the lower 48 states, Medo hopes to expand that number to 40,000 donors and reach more people, both nationally and internationally, in the near future.