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Human milk is essential, yet scientists know little about it. UCSD plans to change that

Corinne Purtill, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

It is one of the few foods that nearly everyone on the planet has consumed at some point. It's linked to a host of health benefits, from reducing the risk of asthma and Type 1 diabetes to fighting off infections.

Yet despite the outsized role it plays in sustaining our species, this essential substance — human milk — has been the subject of curiously little research, especially compared to other aspects of diet and reproduction.

Thursday, UC San Diego formally inaugurates the Human Milk Institute, the first academic institution in the U.S. devoted to a crucial element of human nutrition that science is, in many ways, only beginning to understand.

"I find it fascinating that we know so little about it," said institute director Lars Bode, a sugar biologist at UCSD. "How is it possible that there is an entire biosynthetic pathway in the human body where if you had to put this in a biochemistry textbook, you would have an empty page?"

Roughly 95% of babies consume human milk at some point in their young lives, according to a 2018 UNICEF report. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and UNICEF all say it should be the only food given to babies in their first six months of life.

Abundant research has found correlations between an infant diet of human milk and better health outcomes in infancy and later life, including reduced risks of long-term issues like obesity, cardiovascular disease, childhood leukemia and even sudden infant death syndrome. While many babies get their milk through breastfeeding, the benefits still apply if it comes from a bottle or hospital feeding tube. The milk doesn't have to be from a biological parent: unlike blood or bone marrow, there are no biological markers in donated breast milk that limit who can receive it.

 

Human milk's value to our species is no secret, but many questions about it remain unanswered. Among them: Why does milk produced from a human body have benefits that aren't in formula designed to mimic it as closely as possible? Why does milk supply vary so widely among women, and between individual pregnancies?

And how is it that we've been lactating for as long as we've been on the planet and we still don't know this stuff?

Some half-dozen U.S. universities have institutes devoted to wine, some of them going back decades. Vanderbilt University has an institute for the study of coffee since 1999.

In a 2018 TED talk, Katie Hinde, director of the Comparative Lactation Lab at Arizona State University, said the National Library of Medicine has more studies devoted to tomatoes than to human milk.

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