Researchers Are Looking to See if Coronavirus Antibodies in Breast Milk Can Give Babies Immunity

Could breast milk hold the answer to treating COVID-19? Researchers are trying to find out.

Breastfeeding parents have always known that there's something special about their milk. It's hard to argue that breast milk is as close to magic as our bodies can make, which is why researchers have been looking at its potential as a treatment for coronavirus.

Breast milk is full of proteins and antibodies that pass from mother to infant to boost the immune response against pathogens a baby encounters. Can these antibodies protect babies from COVID-19? Research looks promising.

A new study from UMass Amherst scientists found coronavirus antibodies in the early breastmilk of 14 of 15 women who either tested positive for the virus more than four months before giving birth or at delivery. Their next step is to see if this means babies can develop COVID-19 immunity through the breast milk. "Breastmilk is super beneficial, we know that. Now we'll be looking at the ability of these antibodies to neutralize the virus," says Kathleen Arcaro, Ph.D., senior and corresponding author and professor of environmental toxicology in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, in a statement.

Back in April 2020, Rebecca Powell, Ph.D., human milk immunologist at New York City's Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, also began examining if there are helpful coronavirus antibodies in breast milk. "I will test these antibodies to see if they are likely protective—for breastfed babies or even possibly as a treatment for severe COVID-19 illness," Dr. Powell told us at the time.

After asking for milk donations in a widely-viewed Reddit post, Dr. Powell said the response had been overwhelming. "There's a lot of lactating people out there that are getting infected and would be ready and willing to donate milk—I can tell you because 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," Dr. Powell said in an interview with VICE News.

Dr. Powell planned to isolate antibodies and other proteins from donated samples and test a variety of factors–what class of antibodies are present, how resistant they are to degradation, and whether they have the potential to provide protection against coronavirus. Similar testing has been done on blood antibodies in the form of convalescent plasma treatments, and the results, while new, seem promising.

Lactating parents who are interested in donating milk will receive $5 per one-ounce sample. Any lactating parents in New York are invited to participate and if you are outside of NYC you must have had a positive COVID-19 test to be eligible. Dr. Powell asks that samples are frozen until pick up can be arranged and for more information, interested parties can contact Dr. Powell directly.

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