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Could Black Women’s Breastmilk Cure Breast Cancer? Black Moms Needed for Important Research

Note:  If you’re an African American nursing mom living anywhere in the country and interested in donating breastmilk for this research, please see the contact information at the bottom of this post!

By Tanya Lieberman

You’ve heard it many times before:  breastfeeding and breastmilk gives your baby important nutritional and immunological support.

But could breastmilk hold the keys to preventing and treating breast cancer?  And could African American moms’ breastmilk be especially important?

This is the question that a professor at the University of Massachusetts is trying to answer, and she needs the help of African American nursing moms to do it.

Dr. Kathleen Arcaro studies breast cancer by studying breastmilk.  She examines breast cells, which are naturally plentiful in breastmilk, to look for genetic signs of breast cancer risk.

Breast cells are key in figuring out how breast cancer develops, using DNA analysis.  But until recently the only way to get them it was tough to get them without an invasive procedure.  Those procedures also have limitations: breast biopsies, for example, only yield cells in a very small area of a breast.

But when it comes to breast cells, breastmilk is a gold mine.  The breast cells in breastmilk of course come from all ductal areas of the breast, and they’re plentiful – an average of 30,000 per milliliter.

Using DNA analysis, scientists can now look for patterns of “methylation” – methyl groups that attach to key parts of our DNA which are thought to regulate its functioning in important ways.

For example, if a methyl group attaches to your tumor suppressor genes, it can essentially turn them off – a bit like you would a light switch.  This leaves us more vulnerable to the growth of tumors.

Knowing this, Dr. Arcaro has been collecting and studying breastmilk for ten years.  Her research has already yielded some important results.  She has found, for example, that certain patterns of methylation are correlated with a higher risk of breast cancer.  These findings may pave the way for a personalized breast cancer risk profile for each woman.  They also may lead to new treatments to reverse methylation and prevent breast cancer.  Amazingly, some of the first generation chemotherapy drugs are in fact “anti-methylating” agents – drugs which can actually remove methyl groups from your DNA, allowing your DNA to function properly in the fight against cancer.

But Dr. Arcaro has a problem: the vast majority of her samples have come from white women. 

It’s clear that African American women have a different pattern of breast cancer than other women.  The U.S. Office on Women’s Health reports, “Research has shown that African-American women are more likely to get a form of breast cancer that spreads more quickly.”

In spite of this difference, black women are also underrepresented in some important research which could get to the bottom of breast cancer risk, prevention, and treatment.

Dr. Arcaro’s goal is to uncover findings that apply to all women. To ensure her findings applicable to women of all races – and because the differences in breast cancer between races needs to be investigated in its own right – she has been working to recruit African American women to donate breastmilk samples.

African American moms can play an important part by donating their own milk for this effort.  It’s easy, quick, and makes a big difference!  Dr. Arcaro’s lab sends moms a kit, a questionnaire and consent form, and moms send it back with their milk.  They’ll send participants $25 in thanks for their time and effort.

For African American who are not nursing, Dr. Arcaro still needs help!  She’s  urging participation in the Love/Avon Army of Women – a project aiming to recruit one million women to sign up to participate in breast cancer research (if they choose to do so).  Having African American women well represented in the breast cancer research is key, for her research and many others.’  So Dr. Arcaro hopes women will sign up for the Army of Women (and be sure to select “breast milk study” in the drop down menu to help track the impact).

Dr. Arcaro’s lab is one of the few in the world which is consistently investigating the secrets breastmilk holds for our understanding of breast cancer.  You can learn more about Dr. Arcaro’s work, and see if you or mothers you know might qualify for one of her studies, at the website of the UMass Breastmilk Lab, and follow the lab on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

If you’re African American and interested in donating milk for this effort, please contact Beth Punska at (413) 545-0813, or email her at epunska@vasci.umass.edu. More information is also at the study website.  If you’re not nursing, please consider joining the Love/Avon Army of Women, and select “breast milk study” when asked how you heard about it!

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