by Donna Walls, RN, BSN, IBCLC, ANLC
Years ago, maybe 20 or so, I went to a conference session entitled “Breastmilk Apoptosis.” I had no idea what that meant, but a Swedish researcher explained how his team was applying breastmilk to cancer cells in a petri dish and found the milk was actually destroying malignant cells. I was astounded- this breastmilk is really great stuff! But years went by and I didn’t hear about “apoptosis” again, until just recently. Through the years, I have talked with some patients who were using breastmilk during cancer treatments and even heard a bit about milk banks having cancer therapy on their list of uses, but you would have thought if breastmilk was really killing cancer cells it would have been the lead story on the evening news. Fast forward to 2019 and there are some research articles surfacing touting the ability of breastmilk to actually destroy cancer cells. Substances found only in breastmilk, alpha-lactalbumin, combined with fatty acids (most commonly oleic acid) have the capability of destroying malignant tumor cells. (Hakansson et al., 1995; Reed, 2003) This early breastmilk research began looking at the mechanisms of breastmilk in killing pathogenic germs. They were using cancer cells, as they commonly do with experiments, and were surprised to find the cancer cells being destroyed. They then applied the breastmilk to healthy cells and found no negative effects to healthy cells. In 1995, Professor Catharina Svanborg of the Lund University in Sweden was working on the application of breastmilk components to cancer cells stated, “We have very strong data in mice showing dose-dependent reduction of the tumor, to the point of disappearance. And we have laboratory evidence for effects against many different types of cancer cells and it is therapeutic use in animal models of brain tumors and colon cancer as well as bladder cancer.” In another trial study carried out in 2007 by Motol University Hospital in Prague and overseen by scientists from Lund University in Sweden, 8 out of the 9 patients in the study were found to be passing tumor cells in their urine just two hours after being given an alpha-lactalbumin complex synthesized drug resulting in decreased tumor size. In another early trial involving 40 patients with hard-to-treat bladder cancer it was found that all 20 who were given a drug based on the alpha-lactalbumin complex had whole tumor fragments in their urine. This complex of alpha-lactalbumin and fatty acids is referred to as HAMLET (human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells). This complex induces apoptosis which is defined as cell death, cell suicide or programmed cell death. HAMLET has been shown to induce anti-tumor effects on more than 40 different lymphomas and carcinomas. Also, these cells were able to distinguish between malignant cells and normally functioning cells and does not exert their anti-tumor effects on healthy cells. (Delgado Y. 2015) So, what are the practical aspects of using breastmilk as a treatment for cancer? Synthesis of the HAMLET cell complex is being used in research studies and the development of anti-cancer medications by the pharmaceutical industry “looks promising”. FDA approval of clinical trials included the statement “the unique characteristic of the protein could potentially help battle cancer in adults, some doctors say”. (Delgado Y.) Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter at Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey stated, “There’s promising research that would indicate that in the future the solution for not only preventing cancer, but even treating and curing cancer might be in human milk.” If, in time, breastmilk, or synthesized HAMLET cells, would become a routine part of cancer treatment there could be a concern about the availability of human milk. “In the past we have had one to two inquiries a month,” said Dr. Deborah Tuttle of the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware. Human milk banks have only a limited supply of human milk with premature and vulnerable infants as the priority for the limited amount of human milk available. There is also a concern that adult cancer patients, out of desperation, might seek sources of breastmilk that provide unsafe products claiming to have benefits as cancer therapies. We know that breastfeeding reduces the risk of many cancers in infants as well as reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in breastfeeding mothers. There are many benefits of using human milk, and with this research, another promising treatment for cancer without the side effects of current treatments can be added to the list.
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