Newborns might not be the only ones who can reap the benefits of breast milk.
A new study suggests a nursing mother's milk may be used to detect a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. Lead researcher Kathleen Arcaro, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, presented her preliminary findings at the American Association of Cancer Research's 102nd annual meeting Monday.
"Other research projects are looking at smaller portions of the breast," Arcaro told the Huffington Post, "but our study is important because breast milk is coming from the total of the breast tissue and the cells represent all of the breast."
There currently isn't a definitive way to assess a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, Arcaro said. While it is too soon to draw hard conclusions from her study, screening milk could prove to be a less invasive and more accurate way to use cells to assess risk than conventional methods.
The study drew widespread participation from 41 states across the country, thanks largely to efforts by the Love/Avon Army of Women, an organization that recruited about 90 percent of the milk donors. It received significant funding from the Department of Defense's Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs and the Avon Foundation.
"This study is unusual because it is not based on a single hospital or a single area; we wanted all nursing women with breast biopsies," Arcaro said.
Arcaro and her colleagues, including UMass' Associate Dean for Research Douglas Anderton, collected milk from both breasts of more than 250 women (the study is ongoing) who were planning to undergo biopsies while lactating.
After receiving the samples, the researchers analyzed three genes--RASSF1, GSTP1 and SFRP1--that have been shown to methylate in breast cancer. Methylation is a chemical tag placed in certain locations on DNA that prevents a gene from "turning on" or functioning properly, Arcaro said.
For the 13 women who turned out to have breast cancer, the cells taken from the cancerous breast on average had significantly more methylation in the RSSF1 gene than the cells from the noncancerous breast. Of the 138 noncancerous women who have had a biopsy since donating their milk, methylation of the RSSF1 in both breasts was uniform, but when researchers analyzed the SFRP1 gene, the average methylation was significantly higher in the biopsied breast than in the breast that was not biopsied.
The results indicate the screening's potential for fine-tuning, though Arcaro noted the researchers are still far away from that point.
"The first thing we have to do is continue follow-up," Arcaro said of her study, which began in 2008. "The second is to test more genes; we are planning to do 12 [of more than 35 genes shown to be methylated in breast cancer]. The next is to continue to use more women who are getting a biopsy and lactating."
If the study proves successful, it will have far-reaching implications for the female population, considering approximately 80 percent of women give birth.
Scientific implications aside, the medical community was notably intrigued by the unique mobilization of female participants.
The Army of Women recruited subjects for the study via its email list, which connects 352,000 women nationwide and keeps them appraised of ongoing breast cancer research studies.
"We blasted everyone in the army," said Dr. Susan Love, who helms the organization. "We didn't only send it to young women who were breast feeding, but to 90-year-olds as well who might know someone who might be breast feeding and getting biopsied." According to Love, 50,000 women have participated in studies because of the army, 80 percent of whom do not have breast cancer but want to contribute to the cause by finding markers.
Rita Wolkind was forwarded the army's call for breast milk by a friend. A survivor herself, Wolkind was in the throes of radiation treatment when Arcaro began to receive independent and government funding for her project.
"I was one of the lucky ones; they found it fast and after radiation I was fine," said Wolkind, 66. "But I have a friend who is stage four...being one of the lucky ones makes you more susceptible to want other people to be lucky as well. Any research helps."
Wolkind sent the email to everyone she knew, including her three daughters. New mother Andi Wolkind DeVelin fulfilled the study's criteria.
"I have a strong feeling towards the cause because my mother is a survivor," said DeVelin, 38. "I just figure that this was something that I could do."
Using a relatively simple email campaign, the army appears to have the ability to tap into a previously under-utilized population. As one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her life, it is rare to find someone who has been untouched by the disease.
"We were able to accelerate [Arcaro's] research, so what they thought would take them years took months," Love said. "She originally wanted only 250 women, but now she wants 2,000."