Breastmilk’s added benefit: the potential to fight cancer

By RIO ROSE RIBAYA
As the original was published in edamama on June 2020

Breastfeeding sure does have a lot benefits for babies, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastmilk contains a mix of nutrients, proteins, and fat – basically everything that your little one needs to grow. More importantly, it contains antibodies that your baby requires to fight off bacteria, viruses, and infections.

Mamas who breastfeed get some advantages, too. Whenever you breastfeed, your body releases oxytoxin, a hormone that helps your uterus shrink back to its original size before pregnancy. It also lowers the risk of you having breast cancer and ovarian cancer; osteoperosis, too.

But there’s one perk that may not be common knowledge yet: A protein in breastmilk actually kills tumor and cancer cells, a group of scientists found. The best part about it is that clinical trials reveal that the process does not seem to harm the healthy cells. This means your liquid gold contains some possibly life-saving compounds, mama!

Leaves the healthy cells alone

A researcher at Lund University in Sweden explained that they had to treat breastmilk a bit in order to harvest the fractions of molecules that protect babies.  These, the researchers found, have been causing specifically the tumors to die.

Professor Catharina Svanborg, a professor of immunology at Lund University, says they use a replica of alpha-lactalbumin, the most common protein found in breastmilk, to create an experimental drug called Hamlet or Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumor.

Citing her studies, Svanborg says Hamlet managed to kill the tumor cells of 40 bladder cancer patients who participated in the clinical trial. The scientists found that the synthesized drug seemed to not harm the healthy cells.

What’s even more surprising? Hamlet, the professor adds, has the unique ability to target and kill specific tumors with little or no side effects unlike chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which destroy some healthy cells that eventually causes nerve damage, loss of hair, and nausea.

Thirty years in the making


Now, the clinical trial – the largest that’s being facilitated to date – may still be at the early stage, but it wasn’t just discovered yesterday. In fact, this cancer-killing breastmilk protein was actually uncovered by accident in 1995.

“We were looking for natural antibacterial molecules in body fluids. We threw some lung cancer cells into the test tube with human milk and noticed that the tumor cells died,” Svanborg said in a BBC interview.

Surprised to discover that the cancer cells were disappearing, the professor said it took a closer inspection for her to realize that the breastmilk was causing them to “commit suicide.”

Possible cure for 40 types of cancer

Since then, Svanborg has been leading a team to develop Hamlet with the ultimate goal of treating cancer patients and using it as preventive measure against the big C worldwide. And the prospects look promising.

A previous trial proved that eight out of nine bladder cancer patients started passing the tumor cells in their urine, just two hours after taking Hamlet. Other tests even found that the breastmilk-inspired drug kill more than 40 types of cancer cells, which are hard to cure with current therapies, in a laboratory setting. 

Who would have known that the possibly ultimate cure to treating cancer lies in replicating a nutrient found in your own breastmilk, mama? And while waiting for Hamlet to be available in hospitals’ pharmacies would take a few more years, it does make you agree with what breastfeeding advocates have been saying all along: that breast is, indeed, best.

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