Breast milk is best milk
THE fact that mother's milk protects babies from lung and gut infections is well established. While investigating the mechanism of this unique property of breast milk, Swedish scientists recently stumbled accidentally on an unexpected effect of it - the ability to fight cancer, reports New Scientist (Vol 147, No 1992, August 26, 1995).
Researchers, led by Anders Hakansson at Lund University, were trying to isolate the component of human milk that prevents bacteria and viruses from sticking to the respiratory tract lining. Since the effect of milk on adenovirus - which causes common cold - could be seen after 48 hours, cells that could divide rapidly and survived longer in culture were needed.
Cultured cells from human lung turnouts provided the required type of cells. The effectiveness of the newly devised experiment was tested by putting milk and bacteria with some cancer cells. "We noticed that the cancer cells were starting to look very unhealthy, and within half an hour they were all dead," says Hakansson.
On closer investigation, researchers found that the cells died, as a result of apoptosis or programmed cell suicide - a process by which the body gets rid of unwanted or damaged cells. A common milk protein called alpha-lactalbumin had triggered apoptosis in tumor -11- ; the Priment. it was found. protein kicks off apoptosis is not yet known, scientists have confirmed that its action relies on calcium. This conclu-ion was arrived at after calcium was taken out of the growth medium and seen that the subsequent cell death did not occur.
This finding, in addition to reinforcing the superiority of breast feeding, also opens up the way to design anti-cancer drugs from human milk As Hakansson sums up, "A third of all cancers are caused by a failure of apoptosis to occur. So we may be able to use this milk protein to get rid of abnormal cells."