Twice a day, Jennifer Anderson sits down to pump her breast milk.
Anderson will set aside a little for those times when she isn't around to nurse her 7-month-old daughter. But most will be shipped to a local processing facility and eventually will feed a stranger's baby.
That arrangement is made possible by Prolacta Bioscience Inc., a Southern California company with a unique and growing niche.
Since 2005, Prolacta has pasteurized and delivered human milk to hospitals where it nourishes tiny infants born prematurely. The company developed the first human milk fortifier, which is derived from breast milk that replaces products based on cow's milk. Think of it as a concentrated protein shake for the smallest preemies.
To meet increasing demand for its products, Prolacta on Thursday opened what it bills as the only pharmaceutical-grade processing facility for human milk. The City of Industry plant cost more than $18 million and covers 67,000 square feet. It replaces a Monrovia facility that was less than 10,000 square feet.
"The opening of this facility means that Prolacta can meet the nutritional needs of every extremely premature born infant in the country," said Scott Elster, Prolacta's chief executive.
Prolacta's milk fortifier, early research suggests, can reduce the rate of life-threatening complications for preemies, curbing mortality rates and slashing healthcare costs.
Kaiser Permanente was among the early buyers of Prolacta's fortifier.
"I was a little bit skeptical at first … but our incidence of [complications] are dramatically lower," said Dr. Ralph Franceschini, medical director of Kaiser Permanente's intensive-care nursery in Los Angeles. "This is a whole new shift in how preemies are treated."
Prolacta has ridden a wave of enthusiasm for returning to the proven practice of feeding babies human milk instead of processed formula.
The company touts its stringent safety measures, which include extensive testing for diseases. That's important considering a study published this week in the journal Pediatrics found that breast milk bought online was often contaminated with bacteria, including salmonella.
The Academy of American Pediatrics last year reaffirmed the benefits of exclusively breast-feeding infants for their first six months of life. The group also endorsed providing breast milk to premature infants. Doctors stopped short of recommending that donor milk be used because there's not enough evidence yet.
Prolacta has pushed insurers to cover the cost of its products.
A 4-ounce bottle of pasteurized human milk costs $56, or $14 an ounce. A bottle of the fortifier can cost $125 to $312, depending on the caloric formulation. Prolacta estimates that the cost of feeding an infant the fortifier can range from $5,600 to $10,000 per hospital stay.
Those costs, however, are billed to insurers. The company does not sell directly to parents.
Company executives are negotiating with Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program, to ensure that Prolacta-processed milk and fortifier are covered. They've had success in states such as Kentucky, which in May passed a law requiring that premature infants be fed an exclusively human milk diet if a doctor has prescribed it.
For privately held Prolacta, which doesn't disclose revenue figures, a big challenge is supply.
The firm relies at any given time on donations from about 300 mothers, reached primarily through hospitals, nonprofits and milk banks. Prolacta joined this year with a chain of Florida hospitals, BayCare Health System, to run a milk bank.
Hospitals make moms aware that they can donate excess milk, said Elster, Prolacta's CEO. "The sad truth is thousands and thousands of liters of milk is just thrown away because moms don't know what to do with it."
As a further incentive, Prolacta gives $1 for each ounce of breast milk donated to charities it partners with to recruit mothers. They include the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. Hospitals that refer donors also get $1 per ounce of milk received.