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Breast Milk Might Hold Key To Better Infant Intake Of Medicines

Matt Rourke

While it’s widely known that breast milk offers babies health benefits, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher says it might also hold the answer to developing a better way for infants to ingest medicines.

That’s because, unlike formula, breast milk contains stem cells that can transform into any type of cell in the body. And breast milk stem cells have the special ability to exit the gastrointestinal tract

“Nobody really understands why this is happening or perhaps just as importantly, how it's happening, because the cells, they normally wouldn't be able to do this,” said researcher Katie Whitehead, an associate professor at CMU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

After the cells are absorbed into the baby's body, Whitehead said they “take up residence” in an infant’s organs and tissues.

“Some of these … begin to proliferate and somehow affect the baby's functioning,” she said.

Whitehead said understanding how this happens might eventually lead to developing a way to coat medications in breast milk membrane, which could then be delivered to a baby’s body the same way as the milk cells.

“Right now, the therapeutic landscape for infants is very poor,” she said.

Whitehead’s lab at the Department of Biomedical Engineering is accepting breast milk donations. Because the milk cannot be frozen, donors can pump at a nearby lactation room.

WESA receives funding from CMU.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.