Scott LaFee and Michelle Brubaker, UC San Diego
Building upon a long and robust history, the University of California San Diego has launched a new Human Milk Institute (HMI) to accelerate research into the nature, biology and therapeutic potential of human milk to prevent or treat both infant and adult diseases. The new institute is believed to be the first of its kind worldwide.
“Physicians and scientists at UC San Diego and elsewhere have been doing this work for a while, but largely isolated in their respective fields of interest,” said Lars Bode, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine and the HMI’s founding director.
“With the novel, comprehensive approach of the Human Milk Institute at UC San Diego, we have an opportunity to learn, coordinate and interact in a single, go-to place, and be able to speak with one voice. Research can inform clinical care, clinical care can inform research and both can help educate.”
The new institute harmonizes efforts across multiple, ongoing enterprises and programs at UC San Diego related to human milk and lactation, including:
In research, the Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation Mother-Milk-Infant Center of Researcher Excellence or MOMI CORE focuses on better understanding how the components of human milk can be leveraged to treat or prevent infant and adult diseases. Funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Maternal and Pediatric Precision in Therapeutics and Center of Excellence in Therapeutics takes a human milk-centered approach to investigate the role of maternal and pediatric therapeutics at intersections of the mother-milk-infant ‘triad’ and aggregates and disseminates knowledge, tools and expertise in maternal and pediatric therapeutics to the larger research, regulatory and drug development communities.
In clinical care, the University of California Health Milk Bank, operated by UC San Diego Health, opened in 2020, one of only 31 nonprofit milk banks in North America. It leverages research and clinical resources to improve the quality and safety of donor milk. The UC Health Milk Bank seeks to address disparities in donor milk provision to the most vulnerable infants, and to promote voluntary milk donations to meet those needs. The Supporting Premature Infant Nutrition program at UC San Diego Health is a multi-disciplinary approach that engages medical staff and families to improve premature infant outcomes by enhancing human milk provision and nutritional management in clinical settings. The follow-up Premature Infant Nutrition Clinic provides continuing nutritional support to infants and their families during the critical transition from hospital to home.
In education, the Center for Better Beginnings, part of the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego Health, combines multiple maternal and infant programs to identify, prevent and treat birth defects, and includes the Mommy’s Milk Human Milk Research Biorepository. The Lactation and Perinatal Education Program at UC San Diego Extended Studies offers clinical lactation education to professionals at all levels.
In community health, the Center for Community Health at Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute seeks to improve lactation accommodation equity through its Lactation Supportive Environments projects and the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative.
“The goal is to exponentially increase expertise and the pace of progress by convening great minds and converging programs,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “This collaborative approach will generate synergies that jumpstart further discovery and innovation.
“There is a long history of human milk research and advocacy at UC San Diego. Our scientists in health sciences and physicians at UC San Diego Health have been thought leaders on this topic for decades. With the HMI, we’re thinking ahead to what can be done next and what needs to happen next to improve the lifelong health of all people through human milk.”
As an interdisciplinary institute with a strong clinical and community component, the HMI will also focus on effective communication within and across groups, said Bode, allowing for easy-to-understand, actionable information that increases community’s engagement in research and outreach programs.
“Pediatricians are regularly asked about human milk by patients and new parents. In the past, we haven’t always been able to provide answers with evidence-based data,” said Gabriel Haddad, M.D., chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “With the continuing work of the HMI, we can confidently provide guidance based on science, much of it discovered at UC San Diego.”
All of these efforts, said Bode, will help direct national and global recommendations and policies regarding human milk and improved health care.
“With our ongoing research and published results, we continue to educate families and our community on the invaluable benefits of human milk,” said Christina Chambers, Ph.D., MPH, professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine, director of Mommy’s Milk Human Milk Research Biorepository and co-director of the Center for Better Beginnings.
“From the research lab to the neonatal intensive care unit, the HMI will bring us together in unprecedented ways to support our monumental efforts in discovering how human milk can help people of all ages.”
Bode, Chambers and Lisa Stellwagen, M.D., a pediatrician at UC San Diego Health and executive director of the UC Health Milk Bank, are co-directors of HMI.
In recent years, experts at UC San Diego and UC San Diego Health have published key research findings regarding human milk. For example, a study in 2018 found that the composition of complex sugars in breast milk might prevent future food allergies. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, UC San Diego scientists reported that the causative SARS-CoV-2 virus did not appear to be transmitted through breastfeeding from mother to infant. UC San Diego researchers are currently investigating whether medications taken by breastfeeding women affect their milk or infants.
“We will work to answer critical and life-saving questions, such as ‘Can components of human milk be developed into natural therapies or serve as non-invasive diagnostics?’” said Bode. “The answers could prevent diseases like necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly gastrointestinal disease that primarily affects premature babies. Our findings could also help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in adults.
“We envision a future where human milk is the first and critical foundation for human life and equitable access to better health for the global community. Today, we are laying the foundation for achieving this vision by establishing a world-class institute and creating a sustainable model for ongoing research that will not only promote health, growth and development, but save lives.”