Immunologist Rebecca Powell is betting on breast milk from coronavirus survivors to develop a possible antibody treatment for the virus.
- Immunologist Rebecca Powell has been collecting breast milk from mothers who survived coronavirus to look for potential treatments.
- The antibodies found in breast milk are particularly durable compared to the ones found in blood.
- Mothers have gotten conflicting advice since the pandemic broke out over whether they should continue breastfeeding after being diagnosed with the virus.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
After Michelle Agard tested positive for the coronavirus, doctors told her to stop breastfeeding her newborn infant.
But one scientist is betting on breast milk from survivors like Agard to develop a possible antibody treatment for the virus.
Rebecca Powell, a human milk immunologist at New York's Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has been connecting with mothers like Agard since March, when the coronavirus began spreading rapidly around the United States.
To date, Powell has personally collected more than 50 samples of breast milk, and her lab's received more than 800 samples. She tries to keep the milk collection contactless as she travels from home to home.
There's been a push in the medical industry to create an antibody therapy that could weaken the coronavirus, or even prevent infection. Experts have indicated a potential treatment could be developed faster than a vaccine. But most research focuses on antibodies in blood, not breast milk, making Powell an outlier.
As Powell explained, antibodies in breast milk are particularly tough compared to the ones found in blood, since they're designed to survive an infant's gut and respiratory tract to help block out infections.
"Antibody responses tend to linger for a really long time, especially if it was from an infection," she said. "So like if you were infected with measles as a child, you're basically immune for the rest of your life."
Rebecca first studied the transmission of HIV through breast milk. That led her to study it for the flu, and now the coronavirus. So far, 80% of the survivors she's tested had coronavirus antibodies in their breast milk.
But there aren't many studies on breast milk as a potential COVID-19 treatment, let alone its benefits.
"The woman's body … is still considered relatively taboo in a lot of ways. The breasts and breastfeeding and it's been strangely sexualized and all of that. And all of that comes together, I think to make it so that there's just less interest unfortunately."
Some mothers continued to breastfeed after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Research shows breast milk prevents diseases and viruses in infants. But less than half the babies in the United States are breastfed exclusively, mostly due to negative perceptions and a lack of understanding of its benefits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But some moms continued to breastfeed their children, even when they were sick with the coronavirus.
That was the case for Aimee Parow and her daughter, Layla. Her daughter, who was born premature, was about 13 months old when she began developing COVID-like symptoms.
"We actually went to the emergency room twice … because she was having really significant trouble with breathing," Parow, a neonatologist at New York's Weill Cornell Medicine, said. "When she got sick, she really didn't want to take anything from the bottle. She really only wanted to feed from me."
She added: "I wasn't as concerned about giving her what I had because she already had it."
For other mothers though, like Michelle Agard, the decision to breastfeed their children was taken away from them once they were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Agard said doctors told her to stop breastfeeding her newborn and 1-year-old child because at the time, it wasn't known whether the virus could be transmitted via breast milk.
"To go through all that work, to pump and get the milk and then have to watch it just go down the drain, it's heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking," she said.
Agard had to wait three additional weeks before she was able to breastfeed again.
"I felt like me being able to survive that whole thing and knowing that my mother was OK, my children was OK — I definitely felt like I was blessed," she said.
The ordeal led Agard to Powell's research. She donated a sample of her breast milk, and when her results came back, she discovered her milk contained antibodies.
"I was just really happy that it was in my breast milk because I know I can't give my blood to my children, but I know that I could give them my breast milk. So I was excited about that," Agard said.
It's important to note that having antibodies in breast milk does not mean it guarantees immunity against the coronavirus for children.
Additionally, researchers aren't sure how long antibody immunity lasts, with a recent study finding that coronavirus antibodies can start to decrease in as little as two months after infection.
"We're in such early days of both the disease and the studies about antibodies in breast milk that I would worry about anybody developing a set of false sense of security about breastfeeding their child, and assuming that that child has some heightened level of protection against COVID-19," Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, told Business Insider Today.
Still, Powell hopes that with more funding and more data, her research can uncover more about the potential of breast milk antibodies for the coronavirus — giving reason to hope for mothers like Agard.
"I'm a big advocate of breast milk. Just, I feel like it's just amazing," she said. "So once I got that email, it's just the excitement that ran through my body is like, it's unexplainable. It's just amazing to know what our bodies can do."