Stem Cells Discovered in Breastmilk
By Christine Pollock
Breastmilk has been found to contain stem cells, according to research presented in January at the International Conference of the Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation, in Perth, Australia. Dr. Mark Cregan, lecturer in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Western Australia, sees this significant finding as a stepping stone to new, undiscovered benefits of breastmilk.
Stem cells are “generic” cells that can make exact copies of themselves and also have the ability to produce specialized cells. While adult stem cells are generally specific to certain cell types such as skin and blood, embryonic stem cells are more versatile because they can produce cells for almost any tissue in the body. However, the use of embryonic cells for research is controversial.
Several years ago, while investigating the intricacies of cells in breastmilk, Cregan wondered if it also contained the cells’ precursors. He and his team cultured cells from breastmilk and discovered nestin, a stem-cell “marker.” In addition to nestin, Cregan and his team found one population of stem cells with the potential to, like embryonic stem cells, differentiate into multiple cell types.
“We already know how breastmilk provides for the baby’s nutritional needs, but we are only just beginning to understand that it probably performs many other functions,” says Cregan. He is eager to see major changes in the next few years as scientists harvest these stem cells, in a completely ethical manner, to research treatment for conditions such as autoimmune diseases, cancer, spinal injuries, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.