When you hear about breastmilk, your first thought is probably about a mother feeding their baby. Or maybe you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of bodybuilder forums seeking milk on the “gray” market for better muscle definition. For Viraj Mane, Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of Lactiga, another thought came to mind: how can the immunological benefits of human milk antibodies be used to benefit those with immunodeficiencies?
In the fifth installment of our Making Impact Podcast series, ODAIA’s co-founder, Helen Kontozopoulos met with Viraj Mane to discuss the benefits of human milk antibodies for those living with compromised immune systems and building rapport in a sensitive environment.
When Viraj first became a father, he began to notice that his freezer was slowly becoming full with pouches of breastmilk. He wondered if there might be something he could do with this milk from a scientific perspective that would help others. From there, he began his research on milk banks which are a “network of over 700 organizations all around the world, almost all of them non-profits, [with a mandate] to secure extra samples from moms who donate the [milk] they don't need.” With this extra product, the milk banks process and pool it to make it a nutritional food for medically fragile babies.
With a scientific background in immunology, virology, infectious diseases, and pandemic preparedness, Viraj was able to identify that the lack of antibodies in immunodeficient patients could be mitigated with human milk. As Viraj explains it, “For specific patients with antibody deficiencies and those who are missing IgA antibodies, [this] happens to be the same antibody that is naturally abundant in human milk. So we felt like that was a pretty perfect fit. You take patients who are missing IgA antibodies, and then you provide IgA antibodies, which are sourced from milk samples.”
After cold calling numerous milk banks himself, Viraj was able to get an idea of the different banks’ willingness to repurpose their unused supply for antibody therapeutics. To the banks themselves, he communicated a medical and reduced waste narrative about “milk banks being [a] critical partner in taking something that they currently flag as trash, because it doesn't meet their inclusion criteria, for something they could use” to help others.
This allowed Lactiga to be born and build some of the first-ever contracts with a for-profit biotech venture engaging with nonprofit milk banks as supply partners.
Working with mothers and milk banks is a sensitive area that required Lactiga to take a different approach by developing communication that was appropriate to their unique suppliers. “Our relationship on the supply side was to try to work directly with milk bank directors, but being way more careful because this isn’t a traditional purchase of a bulk compound. This is a naturally occurring human starting material. And so we had to be a lot more thoughtful and careful about how that would look to our potential partners,” Viraj says.
One of their first major considerations was value, specifically in their early conversations with milk banks on what Lactiga could do with the product supplied. Coming from a science background, it’s easy to get into nitty-gritty medical explanations but business doesn’t work that way. Viraj describes the solution as showing stakeholders why they should partake in the upside, “not just financially but optically, emotionally, and professionally.” If they could make it clear that there was something in it for the parties involved, that was the best way forward. Another consideration was a compensation framework, a “structure that feels fair and equitable to [the milk banks]. Then we can construct a supply relationship.” Through these two considerations, Lactiga was able to build rapport within the sensitive environment of working with suppliers of a human starting material.
Though it may seem like a niche space as the disorders Lactiga’s target patients have is classified as rare, Viraj says that in the US alone, a few hundred thousand people have a severe form of IgA deficiency. One of the few temporary solutions for these individuals is “very expensive and invasive medications called ‘intravenous immunoglobulin’. It is serum-derived pooled antibodies. So while [Lactiga is] looking to start with milk then pool milk antibodies and deliver them noninvasively with no needles or infusions, the current medication is pooled and then delivered by an infusion into the arm of the patient [and] can take about six to eight hours per infusion.” Not to mention this procedure typically happens a minimum of once a month in these patients' lives.
For Viraj, the vision for the future is simple: that patients with immunodeficiencies - specifically the ones with particular antibody deficiencies who have a short list of medications available to protect them from infection - can take non-invasive, easy-to-use products that can make infections less frequent or milder and easier to clear. Lactiga is about building a new reality for these individuals as they continue their research.
Lactiga, located in both the US and Canada, strives to use its scientific expertise to “deeply understand the immunodeficient patient perspective in order to improve their quality of life.” It’s a people-first venture, focused on the human story rather than, as Viraj puts it, “how much money we think we can make.” When a health sciences company builds from an identified pain point and understands the patient journey, they’re headed in the right direction. Lactiga is a testament to the power of evolving business models to ensure human-centricity.
This is the fifth installment of ODAIA’s Making Impact Podcast series, where we will go on to interview other thought leaders who are using cutting-edge technology to innovate in the life sciences. Listen to our previous episode with Amol Deshpande from MaRS Discovery District to learn more about the path to nurturing the Canadian health sciences ecosystem.