Sourcing stem cells from breast milk?

21 May 2012 / 0 comments

 Dr. Foteini Hassiotou was part of a research team for the Hartmann Human Lactation Research Group working out of the University of Western Australia. They might have come up with a solution the ethics debate over using human embryonic stem cells to treat many different human diseases.

Five years ago, within this group, Dr. Hassiotou discovered stem cells in human breast milk. With some work, these cells can be manipulated in to many different kinds of cells which can then in turn be used to treat many of the diseases that are affecting humans these days.  These cells appeared to be very similar to that of the very potent and most useful of the cells, the embryonic cells.


Dr. Foteini Hassiotou

  • She says in an interview, “My work focuses on the different types of cells that are present in breast milk, and my interest is mostly in the stem cells.”
  • The embryonic stem cells are so potent because they have the ability to change and form in to any cell, from a neurone to a nephron to tissue for the organs or a part of muscle.  Regrowing tissue for an organ could lead to having the ability to beat diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure or spinal injuries, all of which claim many lives each year.  But the problem with using them is that they have to be taken from a live fetus that is six days old, which is potentially ending a human life.
  • There are two other ways to get stem cells and they include the bone marrow and the umbilical cord blood, but those also have limits. Cord blood is used to treat immune disorders. Bone marrow is taken to treat blood disorders like leukemia.
  • The best part of stem cells from breast milk is that, “Whereas breast milk can be accessed non-invasively, there’s plenty of it, you don’t have to do any surgery,” she says. “We’ve just started transplantation experiments and we’ve shown that they can differentiate into many different cell types outside the mammary lineage … we’ve turned them into bone cells, brain, liver, and pancreatic cells that produce insulin.

Using it to Understand Breast Cancer

  • There might also be a correlation to breast cancer and breast milk. Stem cells aid in the production of milk through the breast. The stem cells get activated to produce milk and make other changes in the breast. Some types of breast cancers start in the mammary glands and grow out of control, turning in to cancer. The lactating breast cells multiply to make milk, but stay under control and do not turn in to cancer.
  • She says, “By comparing these two, we can understand what makes cells become out of control and how we can treat this.”


This also brings out the breast is best debate in full force, because if there are stem cells in breast milk, they can help the baby in more ways than were originally thought.  They might help the organs inside of the baby as they develop and for future development. Now she says, “Now it’s going to be about finding some results that prove that.”


Written by Rebecca Kelzberg

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