TurtleTree's lab-grown human lactoferrin to enter booming health food market

09, Jun. 2021

TurtleTree Labs founders Lin Fengru (L) and Max Rye, who were previously working in the technology sector, decided to shift all their energies towards reinventing our food systems when they set up the company in 2019. (Photo: TurtleTree)
TurtleTree Labs founders Lin Fengru (L) and Max Rye, who were previously working in the technology sector, decided to shift all their energies towards reinventing our food systems when they set up the company in 2019. (Photo: TurtleTree)

By Celine Chen

SINGAPORE, NNA - Singapore startup TurtleTree Labs, a pioneer in cell-based breast milk, is now gearing up for the launch of its first commercially available product - iron-rich human lactoferrin.

It has the potential to revolutionize the health food industry, based on the premise that human milk has about five times more lactoferrin, an immunity-boosting protein, compared to cow milk.

A costly premium health food, dairy lactoferrin was already regarded as 'pink gold' by the health food industry in recent years because of its amazing ability to fight infections and bad bacteria. The global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated demand for lactoferrin products further.

Set up in 2019, TurtleTree successfully recreated the human-optimized protein from the blueprint of human milk using its cell based technology. Its lab has created both human and bovine milk products suitable for commercialization.

While it would take several years before cell-based breast milk obtains regulatory approvals, the biotech company has chosen to be commercially focused by delving deeper into highly beneficial milk ingredients that could be scaled into existing nutritional products quickly, said the company which operates in Singapore and also in the US.

In a press statement, Max Rye, co-founder and chief strategist of TurtleTree, said "We have been able to identify early commercial ingredient targets due to our frequent conversations with prominent performance nutrition and infant formula companies. We've since seen tremendous interest from global partners in our portfolio of human and bovine milk products. It is going to be an exciting year for us."

New technologies to produce compounds bio-similar to human milk components could lead the way to greater amounts of human lactoferrin designed for human consumption, said TurtleTree, adding that its use as a supplement or an additive in nutritional foods could change the way people eat and live.

With Asia Pacific holding a dominant share, the global bovine lactoferrin market was valued at more than $546 million in 2019. It is expected to grow 5 percent yearly to reach nearly $950 million in 2027, driven by increasing consumption in infant formula, according to Fortune Business Insights.

The surging demand in Asia Pacific has seen the protein being used in a wider array of health products like supplements, yoghurt and infant formula coupled with the rapidly developing food and pharmaceutical sectors in the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on the market positively with rising consumption of nutritional supplements and cheese products containing lactoferrin in the region.

According to TurtleTree, lactoferrin has gained significant traction in recent studies showing its ability to boost resistance to infections, from blocking the COVID-19 virus to fighting off bad bacteria in the gut and viral infections.

Besides providing early protection for babies, lactoferrin also plays a critical role in brain development and inflammation responses. Also helpful in adult and senior health, the iron-binding protein is used for treating stomach and intestinal ulcers, diarrhea, Hepatitis C and regulating the way the body processes iron, said TurtleTree.

However, scientists at dairy giant Fonterra, a major lactoferrin player in Asia Pacific, said there is currently a lack of robust human clinical research to suggest the protein can specifically prevent or cure COVID-19 although it may have the potential to support general immunity.

In their report released in May, the scientists said only one human clinical trial has been conducted so far to evaluate the possible role of lactoferrin treatment for COVID-19 patients.

The study showed modest improvement in symptoms such as joint pain and cough, but not fatigue, in patients that were asymptomatic or had less severe infections. It also noted lactoferrin had induced earlier viral clearance, which may be an important factor as it could help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and contagion.

"However, there are key limitations to this clinical trial. It was very small in size, and due to ethical reasons, the study could not include a placebo group. The lack of placebo means that this study could not evaluate the different disease evolution in lactoferrin treated and non-treated patients," said the Fonterra scientists, adding that other key questions have yet to be answered and further research is needed.

Even then, companies like Fonterra and TurtleTree could still capitalize on the soaring demand for dairy-based health products.

Rachel Marshall, global technical engagement manager for Fonterra’s sports and active lifestyle business unit, said the company is seeing a rapidly increasing interest in immunity as people look for ways to protect themselves during the pandemic.

This has resulted in strong interest in many well-known immunity solutions such as vitamin C as well as probiotics, zinc, lactoferrin and vitamin D which are all found in milk products, she said.

For TurtleTree, its pool of potential consumers could include animals too. It is already collaborating with the Smithsonian Institution in the United States on a project to create milk for endangered animals in captivity, such as snow leopards and elephants.

Late last year, TurtleTree managed to raise $6.2 million in pre-series A funding from Green Monday Ventures, Eat Beyond Global, KBW Ventures, and Verso Capital after receiving investments earlier.

TurtleTree has attracted much interest from cell-based meat companies after it set up TurtleTree Scientific.

The unit is collaborating with global biotech Dyadic International, Inc. to develop cell signaling molecules that can be manufactured at a high yield and low cost.

The partnership will take them "one step closer to the future of cell-based meat and dairy products that are cruelty-free, accessible and sustainable", TurtleTree said in February this year when announcing the collaboration from their San Francisco office.

The company was founded by Singaporean Lin Fengru, who is the CEO, together with chief strategist Rye, after they found that it was possible to grow cow milk in a lab.

TurtleTree Labs ready to commercialize human lactoferrin as its first major product. (Photo: TurtleTree)
TurtleTree Labs ready to commercialize human lactoferrin as its first major product. (Photo: TurtleTree)