Written by Susan Devaney Published on 10th February 2022 Updated on 23rd May 2022

The health benefits found within breast milk have long been heralded – but a new study has found that it contains live cells when it was previously thought they were dead or dying, and it’s pretty groundbreaking stuff. 

Do you remember the Friends episode where Phoebe tells Ross that she doesn’t believe in evolution? It went something like this: “Okay, Ross, could you just open your mind like this much, okay? Wasn’t there a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the world was flat? And, up until like what, 50 years ago, you all thought the atom was the smallest thing, until you split it open, and this like, whole mess of crap came out. Now, are you telling me that you are so unbelievably arrogant that you can’t admit that there’s a teeny tiny possibility that you could be wrong about this?” In a similar vein, as it turns out, scientists have kind of been wrong about breast milk cells. 

A recent study carried out by the University of Cambridge, which was published by Nature Communications, has found that breast milk actually contains live cells when it was previously thought they were dead or dying (yeah, it’s pretty groundbreaking). In short: this means the cells can be isolated and studied for scientific purposes, including the early detection of breast cancer. “Breast tissue is dynamic, changing over time during puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and ageing,” said Dr. Alecia-Jane Twigger, lead author of the study. “These living cells provide researchers with insight into a potential early indicator of future breast cancer development.”

As it stands, we know that there’s a link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of breast cancer. But this early-stage research is potentially going to open up to a world of new discoveries. For the study, the researchers isolated breast cells from milk donated from nine women who had been breastfeeding for less than a year. They then compared their cells to the cells from tissue that had been donated by several women who were all undergoing aesthetic breast reduction surgery. “I believe that by studying human milk cells, we will be able to answer some of the most fundamental questions around mammary gland function such as: how is milk produced? Why do some women struggle to make milk? And what strategies can be employed to improve breastfeeding outcomes for women?” continued Twigger. 

Previously, scientists had thought that one type of cell was responsible for making breast milk, but now they’ve found that, in fact, two distinct cell populations are responsible. Better yet, the new discovery has prompted the question: why are breast cells even found in human milk? It’s yet to be determined, but researchers have a hunch it might be to help the breastfed baby’s immune system. Furthermore, Dr Khaled, a lead author of the study, believes changes in the breast following pregnancies and using cells from breast milk could lead to further findings related to women’s health. 

“We knew that breastmilk was incredibly powerful and protective for maternal and child health in both the short and the longer term – but this new medical research is fascinating,” Pip known as Midwife Pip, a midwifery sister and host of Midwife Pip Podcast, told Elvie. “And it’s potentially exciting news for women’s health as we may be able to really understand the protective mechanism behind why breastfeeding protects against breast cancers in women. The more understanding we can have around breast cancer, the better.”

Unlike Ross, Phoebe knew that the beauty of science lies in constant discovery – not hardcore facts. One thing’s for sure, the future of women’s health just got a little bit brighter.