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Techniques & Tools Clinical, Liquid Chromatography, Mass Spectrometry

The Mother of Invention

Breast cancer is the most common malignancy in women of childbearing age, and women who are pregnant or have recently given birth are particularly at risk (1). Women under 40 face lower survival rates, in part because there is no suitable screening strategy; the mammography used for breast cancer screening in older women struggles to detect changes in the denser breast tissue of younger women.

A team from Clarkson University and the University of Massachusetts set out to find a means of detecting cancer in this vulnerable group – by analyzing breast milk. “Only breast milk provides access to a large volume of breast tissue, in the form of exfoliated epithelial cells, and to the local breast environment, in the form of molecules in the milk,” say the authors in their paper (2).

The team analyzed samples from eight women aged between 24 and 38 – five with a cancer diagnosis, three without. The proteins in the milk were fractionated using gel electrophoresis, before being digested using trypsin and analyzed by nanoLC-MS/MS. The data showed that levels of certain proteins differed between cancerous and control samples; for example, α1-chymotrypsin and α1-antitrypsin were upregulated, and xanthine oxidoreductase and fatty acid synthase were downregulated.

Despite the small dataset, the researchers feel the data “are supportive of the idea that molecular analysis of breast milk will identify proteins informative for early detection and accurate assessment of breast cancer risk (2).”

Breast cancer is the most common malignancy in women of childbearing age, and women who are pregnant or have recently given birth are particularly at risk (1). Women under 40 face lower survival rates, in part because there is no suitable screening strategy; the mammography used for breast cancer screening in older women struggles to detect changes in the denser breast tissue of younger women.

A team from Clarkson University and the University of Massachusetts set out to find a means of detecting cancer in this vulnerable group – by analyzing breast milk. “Only breast milk provides access to a large volume of breast tissue, in the form of exfoliated epithelial cells, and to the local breast environment, in the form of molecules in the milk,” say the authors in their paper (2).

The team analyzed samples from eight women aged between 24 and 38 – five with a cancer diagnosis, three without. The proteins in the milk were fractionated using gel electrophoresis, before being digested using trypsin and analyzed by nanoLC-MS/MS. The data showed that levels of certain proteins differed between cancerous and control samples; for example, α1-chymotrypsin and α1-antitrypsin were upregulated, and xanthine oxidoreductase and fatty acid synthase were downregulated.

Despite the small dataset, the researchers feel the data “are supportive of the idea that molecular analysis of breast milk will identify proteins informative for early detection and accurate assessment of breast cancer risk (2).”

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  1. Young Survival Coalition, “Breast cancer in young women: statistics and disparities”, (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2r1P1tD. Accessed April 26, 2018.
  2. R Aslebagh et al., “Proteomics analysis of human breast milk to assess breast cancer risk”, Electrophoresis, 39, 653-665 (2018).

About the Author

Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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