‘We saw huge potential to disrupt the market’: biotech firm creates ‘world-first’ cultivated bovine lactoferrin

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Precision fermentation uses microbial hosts for the mass production of ingredients. Image: GettyImages/da-kuk
Precision fermentation uses microbial hosts for the mass production of ingredients. Image: GettyImages/da-kuk

Related tags cultivated dairy Functional ingredients precision fermentation

TurtleTree says it can produce the protein up to a 100 times faster and at a larger scale to make the hard-to-get ingredient more accessible to food manufacturers.

Lactoferrin – a bioactive protein derived from cow’s milk – has numerous benefits for everyday consumers. The ingredient has anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties and can also improve iron absorption and gut health to enhance physical performance and recovery.

But lactoferrin is found in very low concentrations in cow’s milk, and it could cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to obtain a kilogram of product. The fluctuating cost has made its use in everyday food manufacturing impractical, with the ingredient traditionally used in the pharmaceutical and infant formula industries.

But US and Singapore-based biotech firm TurtleTree has developed a method to produce the sought-after protein at greater efficiency and volume, enabling up to 100 times higher yield.

“Current bovine lactoferrin in the market is obtained through the purification of cow’s milk,” TurtleTree’s chief strategist Max Rye told DairyReporter.

Image: TurtleTree

“Yet, cow’s milk contains lactoferrin in only very low concentrations - 100mg/1L to be exact - which hence requires the processing of large amounts of milk to obtain this precious protein. This explains the high price of lactoferrin. At the same time, when we have to rely on emissions-heavy cattle farming to obtain this high-value protein, the whole process becomes highly unsustainable.

“We hence saw this huge potential to disrupt the nutrition market by producing lactoferrin at scale, and sustainably, through precision fermentation.”

The result of an 18-month R&D project is LF+, a product which the company says is ‘the world's first sustainable bovine lactoferrin created using precision fermentation technology’.

Precision fermentation uses microbial hosts for the mass production of ingredients. In the case of LF+, TurtleTree screened different microorganisms during its research, selecting those that had been used for GRAS food ingredients are were suitable for large-scale production and able to produce the target protein.

“We then had to work on increasing our yield while ensuring that the product met the technical specifications suitable for adult nutrition,” Rye explained. “We have also had to continuously streamline the process development to get it perfected for scaled-up production in large-sized fermenter tanks.”

Target markets & production objectives

By 2025, the company aims to produce 200,000kg of lactoferrin through contract manufacturing partners and via TurtleTree’s own precision fermentation facility.

The first two target markets for LF+ are the US and Singapore, with the company currently working with the relevant authorities to obtain food safety approvals. “We’re actively engaging the SFA through the FRESH agency in SG, and are working closely with consultants familiar with the US Food and Drug Administration to prepare our safety dossier for our GRAS conclusion,” said Rye.

“We expect to reach our GRAS conclusion by Q3 2023 for the US adult market, and attain SFA approval by the end of Q4. Following that, we will pursue both SFA and US FDA approval for our GRAS conclusion for infant nutrition.”

The company is also hoping to expand production into the Middle East as well as Asia and the US.

“Our goal is to open up the amazing functional properties of lactoferrin to the wider population."

“We’ll be looking at partnering with companies interested in developing functional products…[and] are open to working with companies keen on exploring how we can integrate TurtleTree’s LF+ into their current portfolio or even co-developing products together," said Rye.

“We’re optimistic that we will see LF+-enhanced products in the market by 2023.”

Attracting consumers

LF+ is only the first product developed by TurtleTree, but the company is already looking at producing other dairy-based bioactives that are currently unavailable in large quantities.

But market success is largely dependent on consumer acceptance of foods and ingredients derived through the relatively novel concept of precision fermentation.

A recent study initiated by German biotech company Formo in partnership with Mercy for Animals and Fordham University explored just how keen consumers were to buy into the cultivated dairy market. The research found that the majority of participants expressed either unease about the precision fermentation process, or a desire to better understand how it worked.

Rye thinks that understanding the tech holds the key to favourable consumer attitudes. “As precision fermentation continues to develop and enables more dairy-based products to be produced at scale, more consumers will become aware of the technology’s benefits, which in turn would likely increase the existing demand for more sustainably produced food products,” he told us.

Cultivated vs traditional dairy

But for traditional dairy farmers, this could only mean one thing – disruption. “Such disruption can create space for the traditional dairy industry to move towards more sustainable methods of production, like agro-ecological farming or regenerative agriculture,” Rye explained. “Apart from being more environmentally friendly, such methods of production will also enable dairy farmers to produce higher quality products, and with that, move away from the incredibly low prices that dairy farmers are currently being offered for their milk.”

He concluded: “The future of food is all about finding innovative and sustainable ways to offer consumers higher quality nutrition across the board. There’s space for both tech-forward and traditional methods of food production to complement each other.”

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