Breast milk contains stem cells that could potentially beat diseases from Alzheimer’s to cancer, according to scientists.
The milk, intended by Mother Nature to give babies the best start in life, is rich in stem cells, which have the chameleon-like properties found in those taken from embryos.
The milk could provide a ready and ethical source of stem cells, which are widely seen as a ‘repair kit’ due to their potential to turn into any cell type in the body. Cancer, blindness, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and paralysis could all potentially be healed by the power of ‘master cells’.
The use of embryonic stem cells is mired in controversy because harvesting them from an embryo leads to its death. But the New Scientist reported that breast milk stem cells can turn into bone cells, cartilage, fat, brain, liver and pancreas, a breastfeeding conference will hear next year.
Researcher Foteini Hassiotou, of the University of Western Australia, said: ‘Breast milk offers a new exciting opportunity for stem cell therapies.’
Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, said more proof is needed that the cells are as versatile as billed, but added: ‘If they are truly embryonic, this will be another way of getting stem cells that would not raise ethical concerns.’
Even if they do not turn out to be as versatile as hoped, said Newcastle University stem cell scientist Lyle Armstrong, a woman could still bank stem cells from her milk and use them to help in the treatment of a disease such as diabetes later in life.
For instance, a woman could bank the stem cells from her milk and then use them to help in the treatment of a disease such as diabetes later in life.
Embryonic stem cell research suffered a major set-back earlier this week when the first company to test them in people withdrew from the field.
Californian biotech company Geron hoped the revolutionary therapy would help the paralysed walk again.
The trial on men and women with spinal cord injuries caused by car crashes and sporting accidents was hailed as ‘the beginning of a new chapter in medical therapeutics’.
But after treating just four patients, Geron shelved the work, blaming the high costs and red tape of stem cell research as well as ‘uncertain economic conditions’.
However, others questioned whether it would have given up on the treatment if it really was going to produce the miracles promised.
Geron, which now intends to focus on cancer drugs, has not released any information about how well the treatment worked.
Europe’s first embryonic stem cell trial is due to start later this year when a jab to cure blindness is tested at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital.