SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Model cultures

RESEARCH

A helping hand for both the mother and the child.

A helping hand for both the mother and the child.  

Breast milk assists in the development of the baby's immune system. Breastfed babies have better motor development. Breastfeeding decreases mother's risk of breast cancer. Breastfeeding protects against iron deficiencies. Breastfed babies have much sweeter smelling diapers.

(From a handout from the Tamil Nadu State Chapter of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics)

WHETHER their nappies are really sweeter smelling or not, numerous studies have shown that breastfed babies are healthier, happier babies less prone to common infant infections and illnesses. "A breastfed baby depends entirely on getting all its nutrients from the mother's milk," says Dr. Leigh Ackland, associate professor, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Deakin University, Australia. "If the mother's milk is deficient, it can have an irreversible effect on the baby."

Breast milk is a baby's primary source of zinc and copper, but in some cases, the trace elements do not pass into the milk, even if the mother does not have a zinc or copper deficiency.

"We have a number of patients where the mother is not deficient in zinc or copper but the elements are not being transferred to the milk, so the baby has a deficiency. This can have a permanent effect on the baby's mental health," she explains.

Dr. Leigh Ackland

Dr. Leigh Ackland  

Prof. Ackland was in India recently as part of a team from Deakin University scouting for opportunities for research collaborations with Indian academic institutions.

Over the past 10 years, Prof. Ackland and her team have been researching in the area of trace metal biology, particularly of the mammary gland, and in the cell biology of breast cancer.

"When cancer develops in one part of the body, like the breast, it starts as a discrete overgrowth of cells but in the next stage it spreads throughout the body. When the cancer is in one place it's easy to treat; you can surgically remove it or radiate it. But once the cells spread around — they move away, get in the blood — and establish themselves in several places in the body, it's much harder," says Prof. Ackland. "What I am interested in is to discover what makes cancerous cells move from their original place."

In order to investigate this phenomenon, she has developed a cell culture model that represents the resting and lactating human breast. This will help understand how cancer cells spread throughout the body as well as how essential metals are secreted into breast milk. The mammary cell, developed from a stem cell, was grown in a dish in a specially maintained environment.

"We can actually make the cells form the same structures as you get in the breast," explains Prof. Ackland. "Being a stem cell, it has the capacity to develop all the different cell lineages that one would find in a normal breast."

She pulls out scanned micrographs of the presentation she has been showing professors she's been meeting and points out the similarities between the natural cells and tissue in the breast and the culture she has cultivated.

"Now that's what they normally look like," she explains, pointing to clusters of cells — spherical structures, hollow on the inside.

"This is the model we've developed and it's forming a similar type of structure," she says. "We can use this to understand how the cells spread in breast cancer, which is what is happening here," she indicates another micrograph in which the cells are clearly spreading away, migrating into the blood stream. The breast culture can be used to help clinicians decide which drug to use to treat different types of cancers. "Using the culture, we can actually test the drugs outside the body first and use the most effective one."

Prof. Ackland is also using the culture to investigate zinc and copper genes in the human breast to understand how essential metals are secreted into breast milk. "We've got a National Institute of Health grant from the U.S. worth $1.2 million to use this system to look at how copper gets into milk, because if there is no copper in breast milk the baby can die," she says.

"We've identified zinc transporter genes that move trace elements across cell membranes. We're using the grant to look at key copper and zinc transport molecules to understand how it works in the mammary gland to put copper and zinc into milk," she says. "By understanding how the zinc gets into the milk we may be able to diagnose deficiencies in babies, whose mothers do not lack zinc. If we can find out if genes are involved we could do a test on the mother and save the baby."

This will also help them find out whether defects in zinc transport genes indicate an inherited zinc deficiency disease, where there is a defect in the transport of zinc into human milk.

Prof. Ackland and her team are collaborating with research centres across the world. "This model is the only one in the world that we know of," she continues. "We have licensed it to some of the major universities and research centres in the United States."

In India, she visited Chennai, Delhi and Bangalore hoping to find universities and labs she can work with. At the Adyar Cancer Institute and the Anna University Biotechnology lab in Chennai, she says she found research facilities of international standards and the kind of progressive work she is doing at Deakin. "The latest technology is being used for cancer diagnosis and treatment at the Adyar Cancer Institute." Apart from making a presentation on her work, she discussed possible collaboration in areas of cellular and molecular biology, with relation to cancer, drug testing and drug design.

"We still have to work out the specifics. In some cases, we do things they (researchers in India) don't, but in others, they can add to our knowledge. The nice thing is meeting people working on the same thing and finding out that we can work together to help each other."

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