An article at the Science Alert Network recentlyreported some pretty earth-shattering news about human breast milk: it containsstem cells. After you’ve caught your breath, read on to find out theramifications of this amazing discovery. Dr. Mark Cregan, a molecular biologist at The University of WesternAustralia, has discovered that breast milk contains stem cells. He presentedhis research last month at the International Conference of the Society forResearch on Human Milk and Lactation in Perth. (Read Catherine Madden’s Science Alert Network here .)
What’s the Big Deal?
The big deal here is that breast milk can be a source of ethically acceptable sourceof stem cells for use in research. Imagine what this will mean to scientiststhe world over who are striving to find treatments and cures for spinal cordinjuries, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease and have, until now, faceddecisions fraught with ethical pitfalls. Stem cells harvested from breast milkcan put an end to those debates and leave everyone happy. No mean feat!
Breast Milk Is More Than Just Nutrition
“Breast is best” is the mantra of breastfeeding proponents around the world,and rightly so. However, formula manufacturers contend that while breast isbest, their products provide nutrition that is about as close as you can get tobreast milk. And parents who don’t know the whole story about breast milk believe that nutrition is all that breast milk provides. But there’s a whole lot more to breastmilk than meets the eye.
Dr. Cregan believes that, in addition t providing nutrition, breast milkalso passes along key markers that guide a baby as it grows to adulthood. Heand the rest of the “breast-is-best” coalition are excited that his discoverycould be the start of new revelations about breast milk.
A few years ago researchers discovered that breastfed babies have higherIQs. Antibodies and other agents in breast milk also help keep these babieshealthier than babies who are fed formula. Dr. Cregan says that researchersalso believe that the protective effects of breastfeeding continue beyondinfancy and childhood, extending all the way to adulthood.
The Science Behind the Discovery
The article’s author, Catherine Madden, writes that, “It was Dr. Cregan’sinterest in infant health that led him to investigate the complex cellularcomponents of human milk.” He observed the vast complexity of cells andsuspected that their precursors just might be there, too.
His team found cells that tested positive for the stem cell marker, nestin,and that some of the stem cells had the potential to differentiate intomultiple cell types. This is what makes stem cells so important to researchers:these cells have the potential to develop into many different kinds of humantissue.
The Next Steps
Now that Dr. Cregan and his team have proven that these cells have thephysical characteristics of stem cells, the next step, “is to see if theybehave like stem cells.”
Madden concludes her article by stating that immune cells found in breastmilk that are able to survive the baby’s digestive process “could provide apathway to developing targets to beat certain viruses or bacteria.”
Grow-Your-Own Breast Implants
On a related note, the Human Nature page at Slate reportsthat scientists have grown customized breast implants from stem cells. So far,nearly 40 women have undergone this procedure, with no serious ill effects.(Read the whole article here .)
[Perhaps in the future the stem cells used to grow theseimplants will be harvested from breast milk. –Ed.]