Katie Whitehead: Using Breast Milk to Improve Infant Drug Delivery

Katie Whitehead: Using Breast Milk to Improve Infant Drug Delivery


My lab is a drug delivery lab. We’re interested in figuring out how to
take medication and deliver it to exactly the right places inside the body to obtain
a specific therapeutic effect without causing toxicity. One fact that is not commonly known about
human breast milk is that it contains lots of human cells from the mother. A typical four-month old baby would consume
on the order of 100 million of its mother’s cells every day. That’s a lot of cells. The amazing thing to us about these breast
milk cells is what they’re able to do in the gastrointestinal tract. Normally, it’s very difficult to deliver
molecules orally, particularly large molecules, because the intestine is simply not permeable
to those molecules. When we think about something like a cell,
a cell is about a thousand times bigger than some of the large molecules that can’t get
out of the gastrointestinal tract. And yet we have these whole cells that are
alive, they remain intact, and they’re able to get out of the gastrointestinal tract,
make it into the baby where they continue to live and proliferate. When we realized this fact, we thought, well,
what a great opportunity we have then to use these cells as delivery vehicles to shuttle
medicines into the infant’s body that wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to where it needs
to go. Some of the cells in breast milk are stem
cells, and these are some of the most powerful cells in the body because they can turn into
any of the other cells in our body. One of our ideas is to engineer these stem
cells such that they can enter the infant’s body and treat a variety of different diseases
that are currently untreatable. Our hope is that this research will impact
the world in a couple of different ways. One is that we’re going to develop a much
more robust understanding of the biology of human breast milk cells, why they exist in
the milk in the first place and what they do once they go inside the infant. And the other side of our impact is on the
technology development side, which is to make these new therapeutics, which potentially
have the ability to impact every baby that’s born on the Earth, depending on what their
therapeutic needs are. We expect to have gained new fundamental understanding
of the biology of breast milk cells and have a sense of what they’re doing inside of
infants’ bodies in the next several years, and so we hope to publish that work in the
short term. And in the longer term, we are considering
the development of a therapeutic, and we would expect to see a therapeutic perhaps in the
10- to 15-year time period.

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