The science of breast milk microbiomes with BoobyBiome
October 6, 2022

Co-founders from left to right: Dr. Sioned Jones (COO), Dr. Lydia Mapstone (CEO), Tara O'Driscoll (CTO).

BoobyBiome: who is behind it, how did you all meet and how was the idea conceived?

Sioned: We founded Booby Biome as a team of three female scientists. We met during our PhDs on the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral programme. I specialised in Chemistry and Biophysics, Lydia specialised in Microbiology and Tara in Neuroscience. As women and scientists, we were fascinated with the thriving bacterial community that lives in breast milk and how it shapes future health. But we also recognised research gaps and the lack of scientifically validated products when breast milk is unavailable. Together, we had the right drive, passion and complementary skill set to change this.

What problem out there are you solving, and what is your solution?

Sioned: The first infant microbiome is key to developing a healthy future. In fact, 40% of the infant gut is established through breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding is not always an option for parents, and in turn, babies miss out on the beneficial bacteria that live in breast milk. At BoobyBiome, we’ve been conducting strain-level metagenomics on donated breast milk samples to create a novel database of the living organisms that reside within. In parallel, we’ve been isolating and culturing bacteria directly from milk to build a culture collection. We test strains from our collection to determine the optimal bacterial community for infant gut colonisation and training the immune system. This insight infers the design of our live-bacteria-based products for babies without access to breastmilk. We see our products as a supplement to formula milk or breast milk to help build a robust infant microbiome and reduce the risk of developing diseases later in life.

I should add that we’re continuously recruiting for breast milk donors! If anyone has milk to spare, please give us a message!

What does a healthy breast milk microbiome and infant gut mean?

Tara: A healthy breast milk microbiome contains many different bacterial species, particularly anaerobic bacteria with probiotic functions, that help to produce a healthy infant gut. In contrast, an unhealthy breast milk microbiome may show less diversity and a smaller portion of probiotic bacteria, which may stem from antibiotic usage. A vaginally delivered full-term infant that is exclusively breastfed typically harbours an exemplar healthy gut microbiome. Their microbiomes tend to also be highly abundant in anaerobic species that provide anti-inflammatory properties to the gut. On the other end, a dysbiotic microbiome tends to be less diverse and rich in aerobic oxygen-tolerant species that could be pathogenic. The breast milk bacteria we typically look at help to nourish the gut epithelial cells and prevent gut diseases, such as necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.

What kind of response do you get from parents who might feed their babies your product? Do you require educating people about biotechnology?

Lydia: People are now becoming more familiar with what ‘good bacteria’ is. For example, products like kombucha are gradually reaching public awareness because they contain bacteria that are good for you. But I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘mainstream’ yet to give babies probiotics if mum or baby have taken antibiotics or if a baby is fed exclusively formula milk.

Tara: Microbiome awareness is growing in line with the regulation around microbiome-based products and therapeutics. Whilst there has, in the past, been conflicting research in support of or against probiotics, there is now increasing evidence that shows that administering the correct combination of bacteria strains to infants can exert positive health impacts when products are designed rationally. During our R&D, not only are we focusing on developing a robust product with strain-specific functions, but we also engage with new parents through focus groups, newsletters, and other public engagement opportunities. This way, we inform parents about new microbiome research and stress how important it is for their babies.

Sioned: Adding to that, the response we’ve received from parents who are willing to be interviewed or donate milk has been second-to-none. Meeting new parents and hearing about their breastfeeding journey has been eye-opening. On bad days (which come around now and again), their stories remind us why we’re doing this in the first place.

What funding have you recently received and how are you putting it to good use?

Lydia: Earlier this year, we raised just over £1.3M through equity and grant funding. We were fundraising while completing our PhDs, which was incredibly time-consuming and stressful. But just in the final hour, we were awarded an Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst grant to collaborate with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and two fellowships from the BBSRC for Sioned and I to continue in the lab after submitting our theses. After these successful grant applications, we closed an equity round led by Venrex, where Discovery Park Ventures and angel investor Simon Galbraith also participated. These funds will be used to complete our proof of concept and ensure that our product is rigorously tested in cell lines and in an artificial gut model.

Where do you see BoobyBiome in 10 years?

Lydia: In 10 years, we will have conducted a clinical trial to make sure we have that big gold standard health claim tick on our product. We are determined to be the people you go to if your baby is at risk of a compromised microbiome - be that due to a preterm or c-section birth, antibiotic usage, or formula feeding. We will have educated a generation of parents on how important breast milk is while making our bacteria products accessible to all babies.

Tara: Adding to that, we are continuously recruiting for breastmilk samples and want a dataset that’s representative of as many women as possible from all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. In 10 years, it would be great to see a range of our products available in different regions across the globe.

What tips would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?

Sioned: Always back yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to people in higher positions or power. Make sure you put yourself out there.

Lydia: Find yourself a co-founder (or two!), which you trust completely and can complete a task as good, or ideally, better than you can yourself.

Tara: And be able to be cohesive. We started out in the same PhD programme with different scientific backgrounds which means we streamline well, but also complement each other.

Final question - what are you most looking forward to in biotech/synbio?

Tara: I’m excited that there is so much enthusiasm around microbiome therapeutics and that regulatory bodies are starting to keep up. This positive attitude towards microbiome products is super exciting for us, as we want to build trust with parents and clinicians with the validity of our products.

Lydia: For me, it’s when we can eventually genetically modify our microbiomes. Of course, we are taking the natural route with our company, using breast milk to help guide our products. But one day, I think it would be really interesting if we could have one therapeutic strain that is genetically modified to deliver multiple functions.

Sioned: I’m fascinated at how diverse different microbiomes are –and how everyone’s gut has its own ecology. It would be ground-breaking if, one day, our own microbiome profile could be used in precision diagnostics and personalised medicine.

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Thank you for your time Sioned, Lydia and Tara.