MOTHER KNOWS BEST

Very Interesting|July/August 2020

MOTHER KNOWS BEST
Compound found in human breast milk has the potential to fight cancer
JASON GOODYER

Swedish researchers have isolated a molecule from breast milk with remarkable tumour-killing properties. Dubbed ‘HAMLET’, short for human alpha-lactalbumin, the substance is undergoing its first human trials.

How did you find HAMLET?

Catharina Svanborg We were looking for natural antibacterial molecules in body fluids. We threw some lung cancer cells into the test tube with human milk and noticed that the tumour cells died. We had to repeat it a few times before we could believe our eyes.

Was it just raw human milk?

No, it wasn’t, actually. Human milk is a source for all sorts of molecules – obviously, it’s a wonderful mix of molecular protection for babies. But we were using different fractions of it, because either you have antibodies, or you have small molecules, or you have sugars or lipids. Depending on which faction you’re using, you can get very different results. It turned out that one of these fractions was causing the tumours to die, but not whole milk as it comes out of the breast. It has to be treated a little to bring out the HAMLET molecule.

How exactly does it work?

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July/August 2020