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Pitt IE students help the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank Provide More Nutritious Milk to Preterm Babies

The group created a three-pronged approach to optimize the nutritional content of donated breast milk via target pooling

PITTSBURGH (March 1, 2019) … The nutritional benefits of breast milk can positively impact the health of infants, particularly those who were born prematurely and require the immunological contents that fortified formulas cannot provide. The Mid-Atlantic Mother’s Milk Bank (MAMMB) is a Pittsburgh non-profit organization that provides pasteurized milk from carefully screened donors to mothers who are not able to produce their own, and a group of University of Pittsburgh industrial engineering students teamed up with them to optimize the nutritional contents of the donated milk. 

This project was part of the fall 2018 Industrial Engineering Senior Design course in the Swanson School of Engineering. Team members included Jennifer Lundahl, Nick Kelly, Julian Mandzy, and Aster Chmielewski, and they were advised by Lisa Maillart, a professor of industrial engineering who had previous experience working with a milk bank in Texas. MAMMB serves hospitals and outpatient infants with medical needs in PA, WV, NJ, and MD, giving Maillart and the students an opportunity to help serve the local community.

“The milk donation process consists of thawing milk deposits, pooling deposits from multiple mothers, bottling the pools, and pasteurizing the pooled milk,” said Maillart. “The product is then delivered to newborn intensive care units (NICUs), which have an acute need for the milk because of the increased health risks among premature infants.”

The project scope was inspired by MAMMB’s recent purchase of a MIRIS Human Milk Analyzer, which yields accurate analysis of the macronutrient content of milk samples, allowing technicians to monitor the milk’s protein and caloric content. MAMMB wanted to create a process to optimize NICU-grade milk production by target pooling milk deposits based on nutritional content. In order to implement target pooling, the IE student group needed to create a pooling model, donor deposit database, and a standard operating procedure.

According to the students, a donor deposit database was created to allow MAMMB to make thawing decisions with insight to historical donor macronutrient information rather than expiration date alone. To create the database, donor nutritional data was compiled into an Excel pivot table that includes basic caloric statistics such as donor minimum, maximum, and a weighted average. The addition of these values mitigates the risk of thawing a group of deposits with contents above or below the desired range.

The resulting processing time for each optimized bottle increased from 97 seconds to 114 seconds, but the benefits of target pooling are significant, and the students hypothesized that the processing time may decrease as technicians become more familiar with the procedure.

“This milk, which leverages the natural variations between mothers, will help drive better growth in preterm babies,” said Cyndy Verardi, director of operations at the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank.  “It’s was an awesome semester and we are looking forward to utilizing their findings as we constantly work at improving outcomes for babies all across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the Mid-Atlantic region.”

The Senior Design course allows Swanson School students to gain valuable industry experience with local companies. “We work with a diverse set of industry partners around Pittsburgh to identify problems that take advantage of the range of skills learned in class, the industrial experiences the students have from internships and cooperative engineering programs, and the experiences of our faculty,” said Louis Luangkesorn, assistant professor of industrial engineering and coordinator of the senior design course. “The project puts the students in a setting where they have to work with the customer to identify the underlying problem and develop a solution within a limited time frame that could be implemented by a client with limited technical resources.”

Funding for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation Grant CMMI-1537992, “Optimal Management of Donor Milk Banks.”


Contact: Leah Russell