On April 4, Dr. Rebecca Powell posted in her mom Facebook groups: “Are you a healthy, lactating person in NYC? You may be eligible to participate in a breast milk research study!” This wasn’t out of the ordinary for Dr. Powell, a human milk immunologist at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai — and a mother of three — who regularly recruits for studies via “mom” social media. This time however, the stakes were higher: She’s examining COVID-19 antibodies in human milk and whether they can protect against the virus.
The post has now, ironically, gone viral.
“I always get a good response. I never had trouble getting milk for my studies,” Powell tells SheKnows. “But this one took off into a different universe of recruitment…it was really shocking to see my post in lots of places I hadn’t put it because it just got shared so much.”
Within days, Powell’s inbox was flooded with queries from lactating people who wanted to help — so much so she made the study its own email address — email@example.com — so multiple people could monitor the influx of messages.
As of this week, Powell is collecting the first set of samples. Considering the social distancing measures in place, collections are essentially contactless curbside pick up: Powell — donning a face mask, gloves and lots of sanitizer — texts participants upon arrival to their homes, who leave their breast milk outside the door. She then collects the milk when they return inside, placing it in plastic bags. None of this is new for Powell, though: “We’re an HIV lab originally, so we’re very accustomed to safety when it comes to human samples.”
It’s important to note that, while promising, any and all COVID-19 research is brand new and just starting out. Still, Powell remains optimistic. “I’ve done a lot of other research primarily on influenza and HIV, [and] the milk response to those infections…. I can predict certain things that I’m probably going to see based on my work with the flu because it’s also a respiratory virus,” she says. “I expect to see a pretty strong antibody response…You find the specific antibodies against [the] flu are definitely in the milk…and because this is also respiratory, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a similar response.”
Once enough samples are procured, Dr. Powell and her colleagues will begin preliminary experiments looking in the milk for a specific antibody response to COVID-19. Researchers are examining how much of a response occurs, which types of antibodies are in it and the level of antibodies of each class. Then they’ll investigate exactly what these antibodies can do — like if they can block infection or stimulate other cells of the immune system to kill the virus or infected cells, as found with influenza in the past.
Blood & Milk
The concept isn’t dissimilar from the plethora of research being conducted on antibodies in blood from people who have recovered from COVID-19. Powell insists that milk antibodies are different from blood antibodies, however: “It has different classes that you wouldn’t find, or you would find in different proportions compared to blood.”
Human milk has another advantage over blood: It’s easier to donate — and there’s an abundance of it. “There are so many women out there who really want to help and who would be happy to give their milk free of charge, who can probably produce two, four, six, eight extra ounces or more every single day,” Powell said. On the other hand, you can only donate blood every 56 days.
Meanwhile, across the country, Dr. Lars Bode, director of University of California San Diego’s MOMI CORE (Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation Mother-Milk-Infant Center of Research Excellence), is studying human milk and COVID-19 too. His work focuses far less on the antibodies.
Antibodies are “just one part of the question that we have right now,” Bode tells SheKnows. Instead, Bode’s work concentrates on oligosaccharides, which are complex sugars in human milk. According to Bode, there are far more oligosaccharides in milk than there are antibodies. Plus, “there is data from other diseases [like] rotavirus, noravirus and bacterial infections, where some of these complex sugars have either antiviral of bacterial activity.”
With so much compelling research, it’s (sort of) easy to understand why people are turning to human milk as a potential preventative measure, or cure, from COVID-19. As reported in The Daily Beast earlier this week, milk sellers “have seen an increase in buyers reaching out to purchase breast milk—not to feed their babies, but to boost their immunity against the new coronavirus.”
Listen to the experts! They know ‘breast’
This isn’t a recent phenomenon: Breast milk has been a popular form of alternative treatment for centuries. “That’s not a new thing with the coronavirus,” Bode confirms. “If you go on Craigslist, you can buy human milk untested from untested donors.” He goes on to note that, oddly enough, the body-building community is “very hot” on buying up breast milk — and has been for years.
Curious, I reached out to multiple milk sellers, but only heard back from Eats on Feets, which isn’t a milk seller, but an informal milk sharing community. “We have had some requests for milk from people who have had COVID-19 but there is no verifiable data to say anything concrete about this,” Maria Armstrong, a community breastmilk sharing consultant, wrote on behalf of Eats on Feets via email. “We would not be in the position to follow up with this either.”
As for whether human milk even has immunity boosting properties in the first place, Bode says: Absolutely.“ There’s no doubt that antibodies and many other components in human milk protect the infant and, potentially, also the mother from all kinds of diseases.” Does that mean you should order it online to treat yourself though? Absolutely not.
“It’s not just a food staple that you buy at the supermarket,” he says. “Even cow milk that you buy at the supermarket is treated: It’s heat-treated, it’s pasteurized, the cows are screened so there’s no disease transmitted. That’s not happening on Craigslist when you buy human milk. It is a human tissue. There are cells and potential pathogens in human milk. You wouldn’t just go in and buy blood on the internet and hope that that works for you, right?” Right.
But what if this breast milk is safe? Still, no, that’s now how it works. “We’re talking about purified antibodies from the milk which is different than just saying ‘go drink some breast milk,’” Powell reiterates, adding that she doesn’t recommend anyone purchase, let alone consume, bodily fluids from the internet. “If this were a treatment, the patients would not be drinking it. We’re going to use the antibodies probably for systemic administration, like an IV.”
So please: Stop panic-buying breast milk. (And everything else too.)
If you’re an infant, though, or at least in charge of feeding one, go all out: Research has found that COVID-19 can not be transmitted via breast milk.
“Any milk that’s been studied from infected women who are lactating does not have virus in the milk,” Powell explains. “That is very much in line with what was seen for SARS and MERS and almost every infection. All the evidence says that it is not, and there has not been any evidence that says that it is.”
So if you’re currently lactating and concerned you have COVID-19, Powell advises continuing to breastfeed, but to ensure you wear a mask and practice good hygiene.
If you’re lactating and have recovered from COVID-19, Dr. Powell is still collecting human milk samples for her study, and may even start recruiting from outside the New York area. If interested in supplying milk, email firstname.lastname@example.org. “Anyone who wants to see if they can participate should definitely email and we will get back to you as fast as we can.”
A version of this story was published April 2020.
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