Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Breastmilk and Stem Cells

Someone alerted me to this article on the Science Alert website in Australia. The bold-ing is mine. 
Breast milk contains stem cells
Monday, 11 February 2008
by Catherine Madden
The Perth scientist who made the world-first discovery that human breast milk contains stem cells is confident that within five year scientists will be harvesting them to research treatment for conditions as far-reaching as spinal injuries, diabetes, and Parkinson's disease.
But what Dr. Mark Cregan is excited about right now is the promise that his discovery could be the start of many more exciting revelations about the potency of breast milk.
He believes that it not only meets all the nutritional needs of a growing infant but contains key markers that guide his or her development into adulthood.
"We already know how breast milk provides for the baby's nutritional needs, but we are just beginning to understand that it probably performs many other functions, " says Dr. Cregan, a molecular biologist at The University of Western Australia.
He says that, in essence, a new mother's mammary glands take over from the placenta to provide the development guidance to ensure a baby's genetic destiny is fulfilled.
"It is setting the baby up for the perfect development," he says. "We already know that babies who are breast fed have an IQ advantage and that there's a raft of other health benefits. Researchers also believe that the protective effects of being breast fed continue into adult life."
"The point is that many mothers see milks as identical - formula milk and breast milk look the same so they must be the same. But we know now that they are quite different and a lot of the effects of breast milk versus formula don't become apparent for decades. Formula companies have focused on matching breast milk's nutritional qualities but formula can never provide the developmental guidance."
It was Dr. Cregan's interest in infant health that led him to investigate the complex cellular components of human milk. "I was looking at this vast complexity of cells and I thought, "no one knows anything about them.'"
His hunch was that if breast milk contains all these cells, surely it has their precursors, too?
His team cultured cells from human breast milk and found a population that tested positive for the stem cell marker, nestin. Further analysis showed that a side population of the stem cells were of multiple lineages with the potential to differentiate into multiple cell types. This mans the cells could potentially be "reprogrammed" to form many types of human tissue.
He presented his research at the end of January to 200 of the world's leading experts in the field at the International Conference of the Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation in Perth.
"We have shown these cells have all the physical characteristics of stem cells. What we will do next is to see if they behave like stem cells," he says.
If so, they promise to provide researchers with an entirely ethical means of harvesting stem cells for research without the debate that has dogged the harvesting of cells from embryos.
Further research on immune cells, which have also been found in breast milk and have already been shown to survive the baby's digestive process, could provide a pathway to developing targets to beat certain viruses or bacteria.


newsanchormom.com said...

I think I could have helped. I just dumped out three plastic grocery bags full of breast milk (that was in the freezer bags.)It was all outdated. I have to pump so much at work that the baby couldn't keep up with all the milk. As I was putting it in the trash, I kept thinking, isn't there something I can do with this?

That being said, my baby is weening. We are down to twice a day. I am so sad and also glad at the same time. Do you know what I mean?

Shannon said...

I do know what you mean! It's just like so many milestones in your childrens' lives... you'll likely feel the same way when they start school, etc... I know I have, anyway. It's very bittersweet. I think weaning is supposed to be one of our first experiences of letting go, you know?

You could use that extra breastmilk to mix into baby food for him! Just an idea, you wouldn't have to waste all of it and it'd still be getting into him.

You might think I'm crazy, but I would give it to my toddler too if I had that much... especially in this cold and flu season! :)

Amy said...

You don't have to throw out that milk! You can donate it to the International Breast Milk Project (I believe the site is www.breastmilkproject.org). They accept one time donations, which was my original intent, or ongoing donors- your choice. IBMP sends extra breast milk to an orphanage in Africa helping babies affected by HIV/AIDS. The babies are 6 times more likely to survive if they can receive breast milk. The program is completely free to participate in, but having done it, I would have gladly paid for the opportunity to be a part of such a life-changing program.

I also thought this article was fascinating. My husband doesn't think breast milk is quite the big deal that it's made out to be- now I have more ammunition! In his defense, however, he's been a great supporter of my breastfeeding, especially in the first weeks when things weren't going well and I was ready to give up. No one from his side of the family has ever nursed, so he feels the need to stick up for his mom and sister when I get too uppity about the benefits of nursing!

newsanchormom.com said...

The milk was expired. It was just in my freezer. It was all older than 4 months. What I should have done is sent it to the breast milk bank over Christmas. I kept thinking I should send it before it goes bad.Then, I didn't. Now I am feeling guilty.
Weaning is going okay today, but I am sure I will nurse him in the middle of the night again.

Shannon said...

You know Jen, it's completely a personal decision and up to you of course, but most women I know cut back before they wean. Meaning, you can keep nursing in the middle of the night or even just once a day indefinitely. Technically, weaning actually begins the day you introduce solids so you've likely been "weaning" for several months now.

My 3-year old still nurses but we're down to a few times *a week* now and we've been at that rate for close to a year. I fully believe that a woman should breastfeed as long as the relationship is working for both her and her child (once her child has other forms of nutrition in their diet) ... so if once or twice a day works for you, great. If it doesn't, that's ok too... I just wanted to mention it!

Amy - It took my husband a while too. I mean, he was always a supporter but he wasn't quite on the same page as me for a long time. Now he is though!