While one Australian researcher has been awarded two major international grants to carry out further investigations into human breast milk, another is calling out the Australian government for scrapping an independent panel that oversees the ingredients of baby formula.
Assistant Professor Foteini Hassiotou of UWA’s Hartmann Human Lactation Research Group won an American Association of Anatomists Postdoctoral Fellowship to examine new horizons for regenerative medicine using breast milk stem cells. She also won almost $900,000 from the Swiss group Medela AG to illuminate the life-giving properties of human milk.
Hassiotou is an important member of international collaborations looking not only at lactation but also the potential of breast stem cells to be used as models in breast cancer research and to be harnessed in bioengineering and tissue regeneration. She was lead author in two recent overseas-published papers investigating cells in human milk.
“Technological advances in the last decade have allowed characterisation of breast milk cell types at the protein and messenger RNA levels,” she writes in The Journal of Human Lactation. “This is now paving the way for investigation of the functions of these cells in the breastfed infant, and the use of breast milk as a tool to understand the normal biology of the breast and its pathologies.”
In the journal Stem Cells, Hassiotou also writes that “the mammary gland undergoes significant remodelling during pregnancy and lactation, which is fuelled by controlled mammary stem cell proliferation.”
With her co-researchers, Hassiotou found that breast milk provides a novel and non-invasive source of patient-specific stem cells. She also started further research into stem cell exchange between the mother and the infant during the breastfeeding period, something that is also known to occur between the mother and the embryo during pregnancy.
At the same time, a RMIT University expert Dr Jennifer James has criticised the Australian Government’s decision to scrap an independent panel overseeing the proper use of breast milk substitutes.
The decision has likewise led to a call from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians for a ban on the promotion of baby formula.
Dr James – who was also the consumer representative on the panel for six years – is a senior lecturer and course coordinator in Nursing and Midwifery at RMIT. She has had extensive clinical experience specialising in breastfeeding and human lactation teaching, and said independent oversight was essential to ensure impartiality when it came to supporting breastfeeding mothers.
“No Australian Government has understood the importance of implementing the World Health Organisation Code to public health in Australia,” she argues.