Dublin, July 12: American food scientist Bruce German today extolled the virtues of milk at Europe’s largest science conference here — for reasons other than what grandmothers have known down the ages.
Studies on the ingredients of milk have revealed compounds that some medical researchers believe may be used to help premature babies survive, fight bladder cancer and eliminate annoying skin warts, German said at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 conference.
“It’s only fat, middle-aged men who smoke who need to be cautious about lipids (fat) in milk,” German, professor of food science at the University of California, Davis, said. “And even for them, zero may not be optimal,” he told The Telegraph on the sidelines of a session on milk.
German, who has been studying the role of milk in protecting health, said research over the past decade suggested that milk appeared to hold the key not just for prevention and treatment of certain health conditions, but also to improve the properties of other foods.
Research on an indigestible substance — a complicated polymer of sugar — found in human breast milk, for instance, showed that it sustained a unique bacterium called Bifidobacterium infantis that is found mainly in the intestines of milk-fed infants, he said.
“The organism lives in the infant’s intestine, draws nourishment from the indigestible sugars and protects the infant from other infections,” German said, adding that studies in the US are now seeking to assess the use of this bacteria in improving the survival of premature infants.
German cited recent research at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden where a team of scientists has found that a substance in breast milk can kill cancer cells. The team led by Roger Karlsson, found that a protein called human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumour cells, or Hamlet, discovered several years ago, is able to kill bladder cancer cells. Patients who were treated with this protein excreted dead cancer cells in their urine after each treatment.
In a scientific paper published two years ago in the journal PLoS One, Karlsson had reported that laboratory experiments suggest that Hamlet can kill 40 different types of cancer cells and does not pose any harm to healthy cells.
Cells that pose harm to the body are expected to die from a process known as apoptosis, or cellular suicide. But the genetic machinery in tumour cells is altered to shutoff the biological mechanisms underlying apoptosis.
“But Hamlet kills tumour cells through an apoptosis-like mechanism,” German said.
Hamlet’s effect on tumours has also prompted researchers at the University of Lund in Sweden to evaluate it for the treatment of skin papillomas, or benign tumours of the skin surface transformed by human papilloma virus infections.
In their study conducted more than eight years ago, Professor Catharina Svanborg and her colleagues were able to show that a topical formulation of Hamlet was able to eliminate the papillomas with a lasting effect in two years of treatment. Scientists are currently trying to understand the mechanism of action through which the protein has these effects on malignant tumours and on the papillomas.
German told the ESOF 2012 delegates that certain characteristics of milk may also be used to influence the way modern foods are processed. “Milk is absorbed slowly by the body — but we’ve been turbocharging our foods, refining them, for fast absorption.”
Rapid absorption at times disrupts the digestive process. Future studies, he said, may reveal what components of milk allow it to be absorbed slowly and this knowledge could be used to slow down the absorption of other foods consumed by humans.