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'Living' cells in breast milk may provide clues to cancer risk, researchers say

'Living' cells in breast milk may provide clues to cancer risk, researchers say
Magnetic resonance imaging of the breast showing breast cancer. New research suggests cells harvested from breast milk may provide clues to cancer development. Photo by Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia

Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Cambridge in England have harvested living cells from human breast milk that could be used identify those at risk for developing breast cancer, they said in a paper published Friday by Nature Communications.

The cells found in human milk, once thought to be dead or dying, are living and provide a platform for the study of how breast tissue changes during lactation, the researchers said.

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"By studying human milk cells, we will be able to answer some of the most fundamental questions around mammary gland function," co-author Alecia-Jane Twigger said in a press release.

This includes questions such as, "How is milk produced? Why do some women struggle to make milk? and what strategies can be employed to improve breastfeeding outcomes for women?" said Twigger, a post-doctoral researcher in pharmacology at the University of Cambridge.

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Breast tissue changes over the course of a lifetime, particularly during stages such as puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding and aging, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

Earlier research has identified links between normal breast changes and cancer risk.

Twigger and her colleagues collected small breast milk samples from lactating volunteers as well as samples of non-lactating breast tissue donated by women who elected to have aesthetic breast reduction surgery.

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Using genetic analysis technology, the researchers compared the composition of the collected breast tissue cells, identifying the differences between lactating and non-lactating human mammary glands, they said.

These differences could provide clues as to how some develop breast cancer later in life, the researchers said.

By collecting these samples donated by breastfeeding women, now known to contain living cells, researchers can capture dynamic cells in a non-invasive way, according to Twigger and her colleagues.

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This greater ease of access to breast cells can open the door to more studies on women's health in the future, they said.

"We hope this finding will enable future studies into the early steps of breast cancer," co-author Walid Khaled, a lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Cambridge, said in a press release.

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