You’re More Like Your Mother Than You Know

May 22, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

Photo of mother and child

While the benefits of breast feeding have been well-documented, scientists were surprised to learn of another one: breast milk contains a mother’s stem cells that become a part of different organs of the baby’s body.

Breast feeding protects infants against infections early in life and reduces their risk of juvenile diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as children. It also helps mothers lose weight after giving birth and lowers their risk of osteoporosis and uterine and ovarian cancer.

In addition, seven years ago scientists discovered the presence of mammary stem cells in breast milk. The mammary gland is unique in its ability to go through different stages in anticipation of producing milk, then a period of milk secretion followed by a return to the non-lactating state. All of this can occur as many times as necessary. This massive restructuring of the breast suggested the presence of stem cells.

Human breast milk contains about 14,000 cells in each milliliter. Most of these are the epithelial cells that are abundant in the breast and cells of the immune system. Some of the cells in breast milk had a molecule called nestin on the surface, which in adults is a marker for multipotent stem cells that can develop into many different types of cells, like those in the brain, pancreas, liver, skin, and bone marrow. When scientists transplanted a single nestin-positive stem cells into the fat pad of a grown mouse, it reconstituted a functional mammary gland. Scientists wondered if such cells were serving the same function in humans.

However, further research revealed quite a surprise. First, they genetically modified mice to produce a protein that makes the cells glow red under fluorescent light. Mothers with this new feature were given normal pups to nurse. When they were examined as adult mice, they had cells that glowed red like the mice they had nursed from in their blood, brain, thymus, pancreas, spleen, and kidneys. These cells became functional cells within these organs, so the ones in the brain behaved like neurons and those in the liver made albumin. Based on this experiment, breast milk stem cells travel into the baby’s blood and become functional parts of various organs, at least in mice.

In the laboratory, these stem cells have also shown the ability to differentiate into breast cells that produce milk in a petri dish, as well as bone cells, joint cells, brain cells, heart cells, liver cells, and pancreatic cells that synthesize insulin. In addition, this study may have also discovered a non-invasive, ethical, and sustainable source of multipotent stems.

We don’t yet fully understand the role of these cells in offspring, whether they maintain a tolerance for the mother’s milk, play a role in normal growth and development, or both. Until then, know that your mother is more a part of you than you ever realized.

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Medicine: A Team Sport

Dec. 19, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

Medicine: A Team Sport

Imagine if public use of social media influenced healthcare in the United States. The result would be medical care that’s more patient-centric and data-driven.  Luckily, we don’t have to wait for these two platforms to converge, because it’s already on the horizon. Called participatory medicine, it’s based on four components termed P4: preventive, predictive, personalized, and participatory. This focuses on the patient not just as a recipient of care, but as an active and contributing part of maintaining health and diagnosing and treating disease.

Think of participatory medicine as a team sport that includes a patient, patient groups, specialized social networks, the entire care team, and clinical researchers. All team members have access to the patient’s data and participate equally in making decisions. This is a seismic shift from the traditional doctor-patient relationship, where a patient is generally a passive recipient of healthcare decisions. But in participatory medicine, patients have more control of their health and are accepted as partners in healthcare decisions.

Patient-sponsored social networks may drive participatory medicine into the healthcare industry. Such social networking can provide information about this new approach to medicine and educate other patients. There are already strong social networks for some chronic diseases, offering education, information about clinical studies, clinical advances, and updates on clinical trials. For example, the National Parkinson’s Foundation provides information about this disease, lists clinical trials, reviews the latest research, and has a hotline for people with questions. Parkinson’s patients can stay informed on the current practices and where treatments are heading with the latest information from ongoing clinical trials.

To succeed, participatory medicine will require the compilation of huge sets of data. This data might include the complete genomic sequence of every patient. Such a thing was unheard of just five years ago, but the more affordable cost of genome sequencing can now make this a reality. Comparing the genomic sequence and data sets of people with the same disease could provide clues about how they can stay as healthy as possible and how to reduce the incidence of that disease by examining possible genetic and environmental causes. Already, comparisons of cancer patients’ genomes have revealed that certain mutated genes, such as the BRCA1 gene linked to breast and ovarian cancer, could be responsible for cancerous growths. This has also lead to the development of drugs that specifically target cancer-invoking genes to combat the cancer. Such individualized cancer therapies all started with the analysis of large data sets. Once established, this new way of applying medicine will drive down the cost of healthcare and make trial-and-error treatments obsolete.

Large, longitudinal studies plan to take the medical application of data analysis to the next level by following 100,000 people for 30 years. Every year, researchers will collect a panel of multiple lab measurements from subjects and interview them to determine their overall health and environment. The database generated will provide answers to how we remain healthy and what genetic and environmental factors are associated with different states of disease. This will transform medicine’s ability to keep people healthy and allow early prediction for those likely to develop certain diseases.

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