Synthetic Biology for Immunizing Infant Formula

Heya Desai
6 min readOct 30, 2021


I’m currently in the process of posting some valuable drafts, consisting of takeaways and highlights, research sprints, and projects from the past year and beyond.

I’m really excited to share a proposal exploring griffonia simplicifolia derived 5-HTP for mental health disorders and alternatives to SRI’s soon — leveraging synthetic biology and pharmacogenomics :)

But for now I want to talk a little bit about a very early-stage idea in the intersection of maternal tech and synthetic biology.

Synthetic Biology was one of my main research focus areas, and during the earlier stages of my exposure to the field, I participated in The Knowledge Society’s 24 hour focus hackathon.

Here, I had the opportunity to work with Elizabeth Trykin and Neyla Kirby and explore the problems surrounding adherence to exclusive breastfeeding as well as the noteworthy differences between Breastfeeding and feeding an infant through various kinds of formula.

I want to emphasize, that this iteration of the idea was exclusively for the hackathon. Elizabeth has been pursuing her work ahead in alternative breastmilk tech and she’s written a series of articles on how breast-milk production works, and how lab-grown antibodies can be introduced into infant formula among much more on her medium :)

Close your eyes and think about all of your goals and aspirations. But what if they were taken away from you. For unforcing reasons, you just couldn’t do what you needed to do to make a difference anymore.

That’s how mothers who aren’t able to breastfeed, feel.

Every single women experiences difficulty with breastfeeding in one way or another, and unfortunately for some they are physically incapable to do what their newborns depend on them for.

Most mothers would love to breastfeed, but because of a couple factors, they end up not doing so. 23% of women are unable to breastfeed and only 44% of women worldwide exclusively breastfeed for 6 months due to the drop in milk supply and feeding problems.

Now sometimes women simply experience extreme discomfort, have to go back to work, experience pain.

  1. Sore nipples
  2. Baby isn’t latching on properly
  3. Breast engorgement
  4. Too much breast milk
  5. Infections
  6. Blocked milk duct
  7. Mastitis
  8. Breast abscess
  9. Tongue tie (1 in 10 babies have this)
  10. Society’s standards
  11. Breastfeeding takes about 10 hours a day
  12. Having to go back to work

So the solution to these issues is formula.

However, when switching to formula women feel as if they are doing a disservice to their babies. To a degree this is validated by the gaps between breast milk and formula. One specific issue is that infant formula doesn’t contain antibodies such as the IgA protein.

Many women have no other option than to resort to formula for their babies, but understand that it’s not the ideal alternative because it lacks many important chemical components that would help their child’s growth.

This creates terrible anxiety, can lead to depression, infact does, for 76% of women who cannot breastfeed. They feel as if they cannot provide the one thing that their child needs the most.

Key Differences Between Breast Milk and Current Formula

While formula closely mimics breast milk in terms of macronutrients among other tangible ingredients such as a mix of vitamins and minerals, it does not contain the immune-boosting elements that are critical for newborns to strengthen their immune systems and fight against infections.

One of these elements is Iga. It is a very important component of child development being an antibody that promotes the protection of the mucosal system of the body.

The Importance of Secretory Immunoglobulin A — The Main Antibody Found in Breastmilk.

In newborns, the sIgA promotes intestinal epithelial barrier function and prevents systemic infection caused by potential pathogens.

Think of it as a protective lining inside of the stomach, that prevents harm from bacteria. It essentially shapes the composition of the gut microbiota. Babies are born with low amounts of IgA naturally, and are able to increase their levels through breastfeeding

An experiment was done that showed that individuals without IgA are more susceptible to inflammatory responses caused by commercial microbes.

It is clear that the presence of IgA is critical for babies to be able to fight against infection, however current formula lacking this antibody creates a significant gap between the beneficial properties of breast milk opposed to the ingredients in infant formula.

By adding the protection against infection to ready-to-feed liquid infant formula using igA antibodies derived from engineered tobacco plants, we can create an Improved formula closely mimics breast milk’s health-boosting benefits and properties.

Broadly, we’re ideating an optimal alternative for the of moms that use formula before and at the 6 42.6% month mark.

Although this is not yet a 100% copy of breastmilk, with all the nutritional and bacterial properties,

How Deriving IgA from Engineered Tobacco Plants Works

  1. Immunoglobulins derived from a single monoclonal antibody, called Guy’s 13. This murine IgG1 binds to streptococcal antigen I/II (SA I/II), a major cell surface glycopro- tein of Streptococcus mutans.
  2. The genes for the heavy and light chains of the antibody are cloned and assembled into plant expression vectors.
  3. The heavy chain is constructed as a hybrid molecule consisting of the signal peptide, variable region, with Cγ1 and Cγ2 domains of the Guy’s 13 heavy chain fused to the Cα2 and Cα3 domains from an IgA secreting hybridoma.
  4. Tobacco plants produced progeny that expressed and assembled IgA antibodies.

Here is the process from start to end of designing the transgenic plants that are able to produce and assembly IgA antibodies.

Compared with conventional steel tank bioreactors using mammalian cells or microorganisms, the costs of GMP plantibodies is one tenth.

The tobacco plants yield up to 8% total soluble protein, meaning 10–80mg of antibody per kg of fresh material.

5. The tobacco plants are planted and grown and the 1 antibodies are harvested.

6. The antibodies procured are processed into a useful form which can be administered orally.

The heavy chain is constructed as a hybrid molecule consisting of the signal peptide, variable region (ends of heavy and light chains) with Cγ1 and Cγ2 (they are regions that interact with the receptors) of the Guy’s 13 heavy chain fused to the Cα2 and Cα3 regions

We spoke to some of our mentors, who are also women who have nursed their children and have experienced the challenges associated with the process — while intending to protecting and nourishing their infants.

“The amount of time it takes is astronomically high, it is like a full time job just to feed a baby. And if you’re breastfeeding, it is 100% your job and responsibility, whereas if you have formula, it cuts down on time.”

- Noel Hurst

While breastfeeding is the natural process that does provide all of the nutrients for a child, we cannot neglect the women that need an alternative that they can feed their child without feeling any ounce of distress.

Just in a day’s worth of exploration, learning and discussion, the urgency and benefits of working on developing fortified formula was brought to light.

Mothers are the heartbeats and backbones of human life, and also one of the largest at-risk populations that need to continuously be addressed.

By leveraging the inter-disciplines within synthetic biology, we can come closer to achieving the objective of creating an infant formula that has the nutritional, bacterial and molecular properties of human breast milk.

As a result, women can prioritize not only the long-term immunity of their children, but themselves, without compromisation.

“If there was a formula that contained the same antibodies as breastmilk, I would 100% use it, and so would so many other mothers I know”

- Amna Hyder

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