Human milk stem cells: a mother of an invention

                 "Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all
                  the wrong reasons." --R. Buckminster Fuller

There is a belief that the use and extraction of stem cells from human milk is more ethical than the use and extraction of stem cells from human embryos.  I agree that this seems to be less destructive of life, since embryos are destroyed in order to harvest stem cells.  I find the collecting of embryos rather upsetting and their destruction more upsetting.  Yet I realize that many others feel comfortable with this situation because they believe in the ultimate goal of saving lives or creating life through the use of stem cells.  There stands our Lady Justice balancing the needs and wants of our civilization.  How do we determine what is morally, ethically important to humanity?  

So I who really feel that the use of embryos for harvesting of stem cells is repugnant, should feel joyous about our men and women of science turning towards another source, human milk.  But I don't feel joyous about the use of human milk to provide stem cells.  I feel dread and dismay.  It's like watching the clear cutting of the Amazon rain forest.  At first it is just a few trees that disappear into the hands of industry.  But eventually a natural resource, in the desire for increasing profits, is destroyed.  Where once there was a large and varied land, full of life;  there now stands a stubbled and dead land devoid of its life and variety.  A heritage,a world is left in ruins in order that a few corporations can make more profits.  Likewise, human milk will be torn apart, in order to get to the gold, the stem cell.  The cellular landscape of human milk will no longer be what it once was, replaced with laboratory chemicals, made uniform, genetically injected with genes and chemical matter.  The inheritance of humanity, a mother's gift to her baby, will be nothing more than a substance owned by the corporate world to make a profit.

What is the price we are willing to pay in order that men and women of science can collect human milk to create their marvelous medicines?  It seems that in order to extract this marvelous commodity, we must have women believe in a breastmilk society.  No, not a breastfeeding society.  The breastpump is becoming the symbol of breastfeeding.  More women than ever before believe that having a breast pump is an essential baby shower gift, like the essential gift of nipples, bottles, and pacifiers.  I have watched how this ideology has overtaken the breastfeeding community.  I have watched as the breast pump companies invade the hearts and minds of IBCLCs, LLL leaders, and to my dismay even my own outlook on breastfeeding.  We question docs and their ties to the pharmaceutical industry but never question the ties between breast pump companies and the lactation consultant profession, milk banks (both for-profit and not-for-profit), and breastfeeding organizations.  It is so easy to judge other professions and other organizations and not see that human nature is easily manipulated by gifts and well-trained sales men and women.  Maybe we should forgive the docs who let the drug rep persuade her/him that their drug is the best drug.  Forgive them for not understanding market forces and marketing.  Forgive them for accepting gifts and benefits, for helping them with their education.  Yet, in the end it is the people who least benefit from a health care system based on the profit motive.  How can they forgive us for accepting that human milk is a commodity?

I mull these thoughts over because I read a new patent application at the US Patent & Trademark Office on human milk stem cells.  Now a patent application means that it has yet to be approved by the Patent Office.  Should we be concerned about a patent application?  We now have a patent application (#20140086882) entitled, "Stem Cell Preparations and methods of use," invented by Foteini Hassiotou and owned by Medela Holding Company filed in April of 2013. The abstract states, "The invention has been developed primarily as a method for preparing and culturing BSC [Breastmilk Stem Cells]."  There are 34 claims and it appears to me that 28 claims are on methods of preparing and culturing stem cells.  But 6 claims sandwiched between the methods claims appear to be on breastmilk stem cells. Is that claims on life?  Or a claim on their creation of breastmilk stem cells?  As this is a patent application, a patent examiner will study it and those claims could be cancelled and it could become a patent.  Or the examiner may believe that human milk stem cells are invention and the claims may stay. Or it may never become a patent. Who knows?  But we are witnessing the intentions of industry and whether or not it becomes a patent should give some of us a pause of concern.

The patent application came from the inventor's research which appears to be from a study entitled, "Breastmilk Is A Novel Source of Stem Cells with Multilineage Differentiation Potential."  It was published in the journal, "Stem Cells" in October of 2012.  The 11 authors of this article acknowledge that their work was supported by an unrestricted grant from Medela, a Women and Infants Research Foundation Scholarship, and grants from the US National Institute of Health (NIH).  The also expressed their thanks to all the mothers who participated and to the Australian Breastfeeding Association and the US La Leche League for support in recruiting the mothers.  What greatly intrigued me and has made me believe that this study is connected to the patent application is that the research paper states the following under "Material and Methods"/ "Breastmilk Sample Collection,"

"The study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of The University of Western Australia and the institutional review board of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and all participants provided informed written consent.  Healthy breastfeeding women (>70) were recruited in Australia and USA, coverin a wide range of lactation stages, from month 1 to year 5, through one or multiple children.  Pump-expressed mature breastmilk (5-200ml) was obtained from each participant and was transported to the laboratory immediately unpon expression under aseptic conditions."

Almost verbatim, the same paragraph was used in the patent application under Material and Methods/Breatmilk Sample Collection.  So I must assume that the application came about because of this particular research paper.  I guess I feel somewhat taken aback that the Australian Breastfeeding Association and La Leche League in the USA did the recruiting of mothers for research funded in part by Medela  (a WHO Code violater) and which eventually is the basis for a US Patent Application.  And I guess I wonder about the exact wording of the informed consent these mothers signed.  I am amazed that women are so willing to give away their own milk in order that an industry may profit.  I am amazed that breastfeeding organizations are so willing to do the recruitment of mothers for this industry.  But then again as I said in my blog post of July 26, 2012 entitled, "Protecting Breastfeeding from the Human Milk Industry,"  

"Obviously, the US is way ahead of the game of monopolies and using women for greater gain.  I am shaking my head and wondering when will breastfeeding advocates stop imploring women to donate their milk and at the very least question what is going on?  I guess when hell freezes over." 

I guess the answer is that some breastfeeding organizations will never stop imploring women to donate their milk.   I guess I just look at life differently.  I fully support the gifting of mother's milk to babies and adults in need.  But why do women feel that gifting it to research by industry is of benefit to our society? 
Copyright 2014 Valerie W. McClain

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