Breastmilk is an important substance, providing all a baby needs for the first 6 months of life and continuing to be their main source of nutrition for the first year.
However, breastfeeding is not solely about nutrition.
Breastfeed is nurturing too, and its properties extend far beyond providing nutrition for a child to grow.
Science has also discovered that various substances in breastmilk may help provide important treatments for various health problems.
For example, when the most predominant protein in breastmilk, alphalactalbumin, was mixed with acid in laboratory experiments, a compound called HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumour cells) was formed.
Such experiments have discovered that HAMLET kills 40 different types of cancers. It has been speculated that HAMLET can form in the acidic environment of babies' stomachs. Most importantly, HAMLET kills only cancer cells and does not affect healthy cells.
Also, stem cells discovered in breastmilk may provide scientists with a new way of harvesting them to research treatment for various conditions (e.g. spinal injuries, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease).
More recently, scientists have been looking at proteins (e.g. lactoferrin) in breastmilk to see if they may actually help fight antibiotic resistance.
Breastmilk and Antibiotic Resistance
Here are 3 questions and answers about lactoferrin and antibiotic resistance:
What Is Antibiotic Resistance?
Antibiotic resistance is when antibiotics don’t work to kill bacteria. This can result in standard medical treatments not working and bacterial infections persisting, potentially spreading the infection to others. The biggest contributor to antibiotic resistance is the unrestrained use of antibiotics.
The World Health Organization has described antibiotic resistance as a looming crisis in which common and treatable infections are becoming life threatening. The incidence of antibiotic resistance is increasing in Australia and many other countries around the world.
Clearly more things need to be done to combat antibiotic resistance.
What Is Lactoferrin?
Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein found in breastmilk which helps protect breastfed babies from pathogens. It kills bacteria (and other microorganisms) due to its ability to bind iron, thereby depriving potential pathogens of this essential nutrient.
Lactoferrin can also bind to bacterial cells walls, destabilising them and making them more likely to be killed off by other important factors in breastmilk (e.g. lysozyme and secretory IgA).
Lactoferrin can also bind to human cells without damaging them, preventing the entry of viruses.
How Might Lactoferrin Help Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance?
Scientists have known about lactoferrin for decades. However, this is the first time the actual fragment of lactoferrin which is involved with fighting disease has been discovered.
The discovery was made by researchers at the National Physical Laboratory and University College London. A minuscule fragment less than a nanometre in width has been found to be responsible for giving lactoferrin its anti-microbial properties.
After identifying this fragment, scientists re-engineered it into a virus-like capsule, which can recognise and target specific bacteria and damage them on contact, without causing damage to the human cells.
More research is needed, but it’s exciting to think that one of the answers to fighting antibiotic resistance could lie within human breastmilk! Stay tuned for updates.