The grand saga of the potential use of stem cells to treat diseases is a long, complex tale, one I’ve discussed regularly in this space. There have been many ups and downs, with many great giddy excitements and many sobering reality checks. Among the headlines:
- Embryonic Stem Cells (ESCs) Can Reverse Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!
- ESC Implants Regularly Rejected by Immune System
- Vatican Promotes Adult Stem Cell (ASC) Research
- ESC Therapies Promising in Rodent Models
- ESCs Causing Cancers in Tissue
- European Court of Justice Bans Stem Cell Patents
- Scientists Create Brain Cells from Skin Cells
- Promising Study Flawed by Small Test Group
And so it goes.
Here’s the latest excitement: just weeks ago, researchers at the University of Western Australia showed that stem cells in breast milk can be coerced into becoming other types of cells in the body — like bone, fat, liver, and brain cells. Scientists have known for years that breast milk contains stem cells. It’s the complexity and potential of those cells that’s creating the stir now.
- Stem cells in breast milk appear very plentiful.
- Most important: extracting these cells from milk eliminates the haunting ethical dilemma so often associated with this technology: that using ESCs requires the destruction of living organisms.
A November 22, 2011 article in the UK publication The Independent carried this headline: “Stem cells could be the secret reason why breast is best. Scientist says mother’s milk may play vital role in helping children ‘fulfil their genetic destiny.'”
At Unicef’s Baby Friendly Initiative conference in Liverpool, England, last week, Dr Mark Cregan (medical director at the Swiss healthcare and baby equipment company Medela) said, “Breast milk is the only adult tissue where more than one type of stem cell has been discovered. That is very unique and implies a lot about the impressive bioactivity of breast milk and the consequential benefits to the breastfed infant.” Cregan’s research showed preliminary evidence that breast milk also contains stem cells that promote growth of muscle and bone tissue.
As always, when new discoveries in stem cell science are announced, there are voices of caution. This one comes from Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London: this new information “may give us some insight into specific breast diseases and is potentially valuable when it comes to drug discovery and drug development but it is fanciful to think it could provide routine therapies.”
Still, the recent announcement creates new hope for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients, and for those suffering from heart disease, stroke, spinal cord injury, and diabetes.
Round and round she goes; where she stops, nobody knows. I remain hopeful that science — the power of human intelligence — will prevail, as it has so many times in the past.