Stem Cells in Breast Milk

Stem Cells in Breast Milk: New Breakthrough in Therapy?

We examine the possibility of babies deriving beneficial stem cells from their mothers during the breast feeding process.

As the country wakes up to the benefits of stem cell therapy and its applications in treating serious illnesses, a new research in Australia introduced a new frontier in stem cell therapy last year. As per a study presented at the National Breastfeeding and Lactation Symposium in London in late October 2014, female mice were found to pass on stem cells to their babies via the breast feeding route.

Researchers concluded that if this phenomenon took place in mice, it could also take place in humans[1]. Doctors in the field of stem cell research have long been studying the applications of stem cells in human breast milk, and whether they can develop into tissues to form the brain, kidneys and liver, the study report added. It must be noted that human breast milk contains stem cells, though these are not very large in number.

The study also quoted doctors as explaining that stem cells passed on into the bloodstream of baby mice from their mothers’ milk. This has huge implications for stem cell therapy in humans. Said researcher Foteini Hassiotou of the University of Western Australia about this dimension in stem cell therapy[2], “In experiments with mice imbibing stem cells from breast milk, it was found that the stem cells not just amalgamated into the blood stream, but also became functional cells in specific organs of the body.” This means that the cells acquired the characteristics of the tissue they graduated to – neurons in the brain and insulin-making cells in the pancreas, for example.

Doctors insist that this is a wonderful new chapter in stem cell therapy and banking. “A lot of doctors in India have been following up on the findings of this study,” says Dr Ratnakar Kotian, a gynaecologist who is conducting private research in stem cell treatments in Pune. “It is one more reason for doctors to insist on mothers breast feeding their children. If the implication that breast milk can actually provide stem cells that can acquire a functional role in the body is indeed true, it opens up new vistas in stem cell research and therapy.”

He adds that this facet of stem cells in breast milk also has implications in medical treatment: it is a non-invasive source of useful stem cells that are patient-specific. Quotes Alecia Jane Twigger in her research paper on stem cells in breast milk[3], “Apart from the nutritional benefits, breast feeding may extend benefits of immunological protection to the baby. There is a vast implication of breast milk stem cells helping in the development of the infant’s brain and major organs. They can be used in CRTs for people with compromised central nervous systems as well.”

[1] ‘Stem cells in breast milk capable of forming tissues in infants: study’, www.firstpost.com, November 4, 2014

[2] ‘Breast milk stem cells may be incorporated into baby’, The New Scientist, November 3, 2014

[3] Jane Twigger, Alecia, ‘From breast milk to brains: The potential of stem cells in human milk’, April 16, 2013, School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Western Australia, Perth

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