Every now and then an article about stem cell research appears in the media, often followed by a flurry of debate. And little wonder. Stem cells are truly amazing. They are a unique type of cell which can divide and self-renew indefinitely to regenerate an organ or even grow an entirely new one. Not surprisingly they are of great interest to the medical community for the promise they may have in treating conditions such as heart failure, spinal injuries, diabetes, leukaemia and Parkinson disease. However the fierce opposition to stem cell research and use focuses on how they are derived.
Dormant stems cells can be found within the adult human body, including in the brain, bone marrow, blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscles, skin and the liver. Adult stem cells are impressive in their ability to respond to disease or injury. However it is generally accepted that adult stem cells are limited in their ability to regenerate based on their origin. Simply put, stem cells from one region of the body can mostly only be used to treat that region. As such, while certainly useful in medical treatment they do not have that regenerative power of their predecessors – embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stems cells are special. Keeping in mind that a 6 day old embryo (a blastocyst) is comprised of only around 70 to 100 cells, it is astonishing to think that every structure and organ of a human body will be created from them. This is the power of embryonic stem cell. However while the use of embryonic stem cells hold great promise medically speaking, this use carries an immense weight of ethical debate.
Is it wrong to use human embryos in medical research and their stem cells in medical treatment? Many would resoundingly say yes! However a starting new discovery may allow the advancement of stem cell research without these ethical concerns, and also brings to light yet another amazing property of breast milk.
In 2007 researchers made the starting discovery of stem-like cells in female human breasts. These particular stem cells appear to lie dormant, springing to life during pregnancy and subsequently breastfeeding. It is now believe that these cells play an integral role in the remodelling of breasts that occurs during pregnancy in preparation for breastfeeding.
However there is more. These stem cells do not only exist in the breast but are also transferred to breast milk. Unlike adult stem cells, these ‘human breast milk stem cells’ demonstrate the self-renewal and tissue differentiation properties found in embryonic stem cells – the ability to regenerate cells in many different parts of the body including in particular neural (brain) cells.
Animal studies, including those involving primates, have shown that leukocytes (cells) in breast milk can pass through the stomach and intestinal wall and into the circulatory system to be transported throughout the body. Is it possible that the stem cells found in human breast milk do the same in human babies? If so, these breast milk stem cells may integrate themselves into many different parts of the infant’s body, supporting natural regenerative processes and physical development, including brain development. Research has shown that breastfed babies tend to have higher IQs and faster brain development. Is it possible that the presence and regenerative action of breast milk stem cells is the reason?
Further research is required to determine this and the therapeutic possibilities for breast milk stem cells. However given they are readily available in all lactating women and can be accessed non-invasively, breast milk stem cells hold great promise. However beyond their use in treating disease, the discovery of breast milk stem cells provides further evidence of the value of breastfeeding.
The presence of stem cells is a quality of breast milk that infant formula will never be able to replicate. In addition, beyond those initial months when milk in a baby’s only nutritional source, the potential benefits children receive from breast milk stem cells needs to be consider alongside the many other reasons for promoting extended breast feeding. On all levels this research reinforces the innate value and importance of breastfeeding as the intended and best form of nourishment for human babies.
Published 25th July 2013