Breast milk: A novel source of multipotent stem cells
One of the areas of Life Sciences that has garnered the attention of the scientific fraternity and the general public alike in the recent times is the field of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative medicine. Considering the therapeutic potential and the promises associated with this form of medicine, it is no wonder that it has taken the world by a storm of admiration and expectation. Furthermore, with the private sector firms venturing into areas like stem cell banking, the field of biology has come into limelight like never before.
The original source of stem cells when it was first discovered was the cells of embryo. However, technical difficulties and, more importantly, ethical concerns associated with this traditional source of stem cells led scientists to identify and standardize other sources of stem cells. For this reason, there was a slight shift in the focus of a few groups of scientists from embryonic cells to the adult cells in their search for a new source of stem cells. The breakthrough in this regard came when Bone Marrow was discovered as a source of adult mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Although Bone Marrow derived stem cells were found to be multipotent with the potential to differentiate into osteocytes, chondrocytes, and adipocytes, the painful invasive procedure involved in the collection of this source of stem cells led researchers to look for novel sources of stem cells that are easier to isolate and culture in vitro. The novel sources are tested for various properties against Bone Marrow as the gold standard. Some of the recently identified sources of MSCs include umbilical cord, cord blood, placenta, adipose tissue, dental pulp, synovial fluid, breast milk etc. The list goes on as more and more sources are being identified with the passage of time.
One of the sources that has been extensively advertised in the recent times as an ideal source for the isolation and storage of stem cells is the umbilical cord. However, another source of MSCs that has the potential to go a long way is breast milk. The advantages that breast milk offer over other sources of stem cells include accessibility, ethical naivety, non-invasiveness, and the multilineage differentiation potential of the stem cells they contain. In the ground breaking discovery of Foteini et al., it has been described that the stem cells in breast milk express pluripotency genes normally found in human embryonic stem cells implying that they have multi-lineage differentiation potential. Also, banking of human milk traditionally existed before the World War II and is now in demand to meet the nutritional requirements of low-birth-weight infants, of infants who temporarily cannot breast feed, or of sick infants, or of infants intolerant to cow’s milk.
Combining all these factors, it is evident that breast milk could be an ideal source of stem cells if they could be isolated and cultured in clinical grade conditions. The ease of isolation and culturing of stem cells from this source in addition to the possibility of the combinatorial extension of procedures involved in human milk banking and stem cell banking could possibly lead us to an era of stem cell banking of breast milk derived stem cells provided the clinical grade procedures for the same are developed and established.