‘Phagocytosis by Immune Cells Isolated from Breast Milk’

I’d like to begin this week’s post thanking Nikki Lee Health for guiding me to Andy Borowitz’s satire Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.

Borowitz writes: “Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life, a sobering new study reports.

The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them.”

While I read through his piece, first I laughed. Then I got sad, because of course there’s relevance in satire. And I felt ashamed, because to a certain degree, I’m a recovering fact-resistant human.

I grappled with these mixed emotions until I landed an interview with Rebecca Powell, PhD, CLC. Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She’s set to present Phagocytosis by Immune Cells Isolated from Breast Milk at the upcoming International Breastfeeding Conference, and she managed to transform my pessimism into careful hope.

I asked her if she thought our culture is receptive to and supportive of science in general.

“On the whole, our culture is pretty receptive and supportive,” she says. “Only at the fringes do people really reject modern medicine and scientific advancements.”

Powell mentions the spread of misinformation and the “vaccine debacle” as a downfall, but says that antivaxx sentiment is slowly changing as more people move back toward trust in the medical establishment.

While there’s almost always debate and disagreement in regard to infant feeding, one thing most fact-resistant and fact-receptive humans agree on is that breastfeeding “is good for immunity.”

It’s hard to refute considering the relatively large body of evidence that demonstrates mammalian milks’ immune function.

Powell begins: “Mammals evolved to feed our babies with milk… It’s the perfect food; we wouldn’t have survived [as a species] without it.”

She goes on to explain that many studies have shown functioning maternal cells ingested by baby through mothers’ milk located in places like the baby’s lymphatic and digestive system which can help prevent very serious infections.

“Clearly babies can thrive on formula, but there is something lacking in supporting their immune systems,” she says. “There’s no doubt [breastmilk] supports immunity.”

Still, Powell continues, “… Breastmilk contains a lot of stuff we understand and a lot of stuff we don’t understand.”

She’s just beginning to assess the phagocytic capacity (the ingestion and destruction of infection by immune cells) of breast-milk leukocytes and their potential role in the relatively low rate of HIV transmission in infants exclusively breastfed by their HIV-infected mothers. This work branches from her studies of various immune cells that can attack pathogens in the innate immune system.

With a recently secured grant from the NIH, Powell will delve into comparing different cells and how they engulf the HIV virus. She’ll also explore how cell composition within human milk varies across the stages of milk production, from colostrum onward.

In regard to her upcoming conference presentation, Powell will share the findings from her pilot study of five samples of milk from different stages of lactation.

Since beginning her research with breastmilk, Powell says she’s been most struck by the vast variation of cell concentration from sample to sample.

“The percentage of white blood cells versus other maternal cells is widely variable even from one woman at different time points,” she explains.

Powell is also trying to secure funding to look into how the antibodies in breastmilk function toward the flu virus.

“Surprisingly, there are not much data to explain or support the protective ability of flu specific antibodies when mothers are vaccinated,” she says.

Still, it’s known that breastfeeding mothers who are vaccinated against the flu pass immunity to their babies which is especially important for infants who are too young to be immunized themselves.

Powell says she hopes her work makes its way to the general public to offer a greater understanding of how and why breastmilk functions to babies’ and mothers’ advantage.

Learn more about Powell’s work here.


You can register for the International Breastfeeding Conference here.

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