Samples from breast milk may one day be used routinely to identify cancer, or even to detect cancer risk. That’s the goal of the work of researchers Kathleen Arcaro and Brian Pentecost of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Costel Darie of Clarkson University in New York.
Dr. Arcaro started studying breast milk to identify cancer risk and presence for a variety of reasons. According to Arcaro, few people know that pregnancy itself can increase the risk of breast cancer. She recently stated, “pregnancy-associated [breast cancer] is a big problem… it takes a huge societal toll.” Arcaro also noted that prior to her research “no one was studying the function of the breast in cancer…which is to lactate. We’re studying the breast at its functional point.” According to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, about one in 3,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy.
Arcaro has spent over a decade identifying changes (known as methylation) in the DNA of cells taken from breast milk, to help identify cancer and cancer risk. A few years ago she teamed up with protein expert, Dr. Costel Darie of Clarkson University. Darie expanded the focus of the research to identify specific proteins, using a technique called mass spectrometry. Recently, the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute awarded a $443,330 grant to Darie to continue this research with Arcaro.
Darie is hopeful that one day this research collaboration will produce a routine screening tool that will aid in the treatment and prevention of cancer. “We have already found several proteins that have great promise as biomarkers for cancer. We imagine that one day every woman could be screened for breast cancer using samples from milk or colostrum. Colostrum samples would not require that women decide to breastfeed, so every woman would be eligible,” remarked Darie. Colostrum is a fluid produced in women who have given birth that appears right before milk.
Other research collaborators on the team include David Fenyo of New York University School of Medicine and Sumona Mondal of Clarkson University, Roshanak Aslebagh, a former graduate student in Darie Lab, and Danielle Whitham, a current graduate student in Darie Lab.
Women who are interested in helping this research by donating breast milk samples can visit http://breastmilkresearch.org.