With additional reporting by Jamie Orsini.
Whether you breastfeed or not (because fed is definitely best), there's no denying that breast milk is just cool. It's basically the closest humans can come to producing a magic potion. It changes depending on the baby's needs, it helps fight allergies, beats back disease and promotes immune response. Even those of us who struggled to breastfeed can appreciate its punk-rock powers. In a word, breast milk is metal.
Breast milk is the human body's antibody-carrying magic potion and it is being studied right now because it could help in the fight against coronavirus.
One reason breast milk is so powerful is that it carries antibodies that help babies fight off disease. Antibodies (for those of us who did not ace high school biology) are an important part of the human body's immune response system. When a virus, bacteria or other threat attacks the body, our blood cells produce antibodies to fight the infection. These antibodies also promote immunity to that virus in the short term.
Coronavirus antibody tests may help people determine whether they might be protected from further infection. While health experts caution that further research into antibody testing is needed, antibodies could be a key weapon in the battle against coronavirus.
Rebecca Powell, a researcher at New York City's Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is examining the presence of antibodies in the breast milk of women who have been exposed to coronavirus, as reported by Vice News and Business Insider. While much of the current antibody research is focused on antibodies in human blood, Powell is focused on the antibodies carried by human breast milk, which may have some biological advantages. The type of antibody found in breast milk is "much more durable" than antibodies in human blood, Powell explained in a recent interview, because it's designed to survive a trip through an infant's digestive system.
Powell's theory is that breastfeeding women might have developed antibodies in response to the virus, which their breast milk is now passing on to their children. Whether a woman has tested positive for the disease or not, if she's been exposed and is currently healthy, that means her body might have already swung into action creating antibodies. Those antibodies might then be passed into breast milk to help protect her infant against the disease.
Powell has collected over 800 breast milk donations to use in her research, and hundreds more women have responded, wanting to help do their part in the scientific fight against coronavirus. "I have hundreds of emails of people who want to participate, and many of them have said they had highly suspected infection or a positive test," Powell told Vice News.
"If we find that there's really potent antibodies in the milk, can those be used therapeutically in a way that Mt. Sinai and other hospitals are now using convalescent plasma—to treat those who are really ill?" Powell asked.
Another small but very exciting study from the University of California Merced found that breastmilk does indeed contain COVID-19 antibodies. Interestingly, researchers found that "immune compounds that responded to COVID-19 [were present] even in the milk of mothers in our control group who were never infected with COVID-19. This suggests that breast milk may have some general immune properties that help babies fight COVID-19, even if mothers have never been infected with the disease."
In a piece for Harvard Health, Dr. Ilona T. Goldfarb explains why experts believe it's safe and beneficial for breastfeeding mothers to receive the new COVID-19 vaccine.
"When a person gets vaccinated while breastfeeding, their immune system develops antibodies that protect against COVID-19. These antibodies can be passed through breast milk to the baby. Newborns of vaccinated mothers who breastfeed can benefit from these antibodies against COVID-19," she writes.
Scientists are now exploring how this information might be used to battle COVID. It is possible, for example, that infants with COVID could be given donated breastmilk with the COVID antibodies to help them fight their infections. It's also possible it could be used to treat adults, though the researchers write that "using human milk antibodies as a treatment for adults is farther off because we still need to figure out how to refine the milk antibodies and we know much less about how well adults react to milk antibodies."
More studies are needed before we can draw any definitive conclusions, but the idea is certainly exciting.
We already know that nursing women produce antibodies for other viruses such as the flu and that those are passed into breast milk for the infant's protection. It's exciting to think that women could be producing powerful antibodies for coronavirus in a similar way.
Is it any surprise that moms make magic? Nah. We're kinda metal like that.
This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated.