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Cells in breast milk hold clues to a woman's risk of breast cancer

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Breast milk

Findings reported April 4 2011 at the American Association for Cancer Research suggests epithelial cells in breast milk can reveal if a woman is at risk for breast cancer and could be performed routinely on women after delivery.

Lead researcher Kathleen F. Arcaro, Ph.D., associate professor of veterinary and animal sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and colleagues conducted the study that showed breast milk contains biomarkers of breast cancer.

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In the study, researchers collected breast milk samples from 250 women who were scheduled for or had received breast biopsy and then separated epithelial cells that harbor cancer and then the DNA.

When the scientists compared results of the breast milk sample to biopsy results they found similarities in the findings that the researchers say mean breast milk could be used to screen women who deliver babies. The researchers say since 80 percent of women give birth, screening for cancer through breast milk would reach large numbers.

Dr.Arcaro says, finding cancer cells in breast milk is potentially inexpensive, noninvasive and very accurate. "More than 35 genes have been shown to be methylated in breast cancer," she said.

The scientists plan to continue studying more genes in breast milk to identify breast cancer risk. Arcaro envisions the day when all women who deliver babies will routinely be screened for breast cancer by simply providing a sample of colostrum.