News from Around the World

Stem cells in breastmilk confirmed!

posted on Nov 16, 2011 in News from Around the World by
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In 2007 researchers in Australia found an interesting component in breastmilk that looked like stem cells.  The big question has been wheather or not the act like stem cells and have the ability to differentiate.  The answer to that question has recently been confirmed with a resounding yes.  This new development in the research of human milk has far reaching implications.  There are so many other ingredients in human milk that can not possibly be replicated and mass produced for commercial formula including:

SIgA, IgM, IgE, T cell and B cell Lymphocytes, Lactoferrin, Lysozyme, Human Alpha lactalbumin (which actually has a great acronym describing its important attributes: HAMLET – Human Alpha lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumor cells) over 150 LCPUFAs (Long Chain Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids) only 2 of which are DHA and ARA.

Even with all of these ingredients known and well documented, many new moms exposed to the advertising of infant formula have the perception that breastmilk and formula are equal.  This new discovery in breastmilk is just one more addition to the long list of amazing ingredients in human milk that will hopefully give moms more confidence that the product that their body naturally makes is spectacular and can not be replicated by any pharmaceutical company— The theory developed in 2007 by scientists at the University of Western Australia (UWA) that breastmilk contains stem cells has been taken to a higher level with the latest discovery by one of the team’s newer members.  UWA Ph.D. candidate Foteini Hassiotou has proven that stem cells from breastmilk can now be directed to become other body cell types such as bone, fat, liver and brain cells. Could this finally be the answer to ethically and easily obtaining pluripotent stem cells in a non-invasive manner? And what does this mean with regard to the unique power of breastmilk for the growth and development of babies?

Stem Cells in Breastmilk – Theory Becomes Reality

Following  Hassiotou’s  recent win of the 2011 AusBiotech-GSK Student Excellence Award for her research into breastmilk stem cells (Oct.17, 2011), Medela is proud to announce Hassiotou’s first presentation of her findings of stem cells in breastmilk in Europe early next year. She will share her findings during Medela’s 7th International Breastfeeding and Lactation Symposium to be held in Vienna, Austria from  April 20-21, 2012.

This discovery by Hassiotou, who is part of the Human Lactation Research Group under the direction of Professor Peter Hartmann at the University of Western Australia, may well be the answer to ethically and easily obtaining stem cells in a non-invasive manner. The value in harvesting stem cells from breastmilk lies in their incredible potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. They have the ability to act as a type of “internal repair system.” With both types of stem cells (embryonic and adult), however, well-documented hurdles exist both from an ethical as well as from a practical harvesting perspective….



In particular, these breast milk stem cells can develop into any of the three embryonic germ layers, known as the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm. In embryonic stem cells, it’s from these three layers that the cells can then develop into any of the 220 different cell types found in the body. This quality, known as pluripotency, is what makes embryonic stem cells specifically so powerful as a tool in regenerative medicine.

Now it seems that breast milk stem cells could be just as pluripotent as their embryonic counterparts, with few to none of the ethical concerns that have engulfed the use of embryonic stem cells. Team member Foteini Hassiotou comments:

“They can become bone cells, joint cells, fat cells, pancreatic cells that produce their own insulin, liver cells that produce albumin and also neuronal cells. What is really amazing is that these cells can be obtained in quite large amounts in breast milk.”

This is all exciting news, but there is room for some skepticism here. The key test hasn’t happened yet — and that’s to inject these breast milk stem cells into mice to see whether they develop teratomas, which are tumors that feature tissue from all three embryonic germ layers. If the researchers can find that, then we really will have an adult-derived stem cell that is every bit as versatile and potent as embryonic stem cells. Such a breakthrough might not kill the stem cell debate entirely, but it would take a lot of the wind out the sails of the opponents of such research.

Assuming this research holds up, one other question to explore will be just why breast milk unexpectedly contains such pluripotent stem cells. Hassitou speculates:

“It has been shown in mice that live immune cells in breast milk pass through the intestinal mucosa into the blood circulation of the pups and engraft in various tissues. If these cells are in human milk and in such high amounts they probably have a role. They might contribute to tissue regeneration and development of the baby or play certain roles if there is a disease.”


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