Fueled by the misleading mess of the Internet and false hope, many people are buying human breast milk online in an attempt to cure themselves of cancer. After noticing that this fad is now on the rise, experts are warning that this online trade isn’t just a waste of money or hope, it could also be deeply dangerous.
"We have detected people who view this as a complementary therapy, suggesting they are using milk alongside treatment," public health expert Dr Sarah Steele, Senior Research Associate at Jesus College, Cambridge, told IFLScience.
"Other adverts imply it might be being used as the sole treatment, as an alternative therapy, which is deeply troubling."
Like many of the Internet’s health fads, it’s based on a misinterpretation of a legitimate scientific study. In 1995, researchers from Lund University in Sweden discovered it was possible to alter a protein found in human breast milk to produce a tumor-killing complex they called HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumour cells) that doesn’t affect healthy cells.
Scientists are still digging deeper into this promising discovery; however, the use of modified breast milk proteins as a cancer treatment is nowhere near viable yet, nor is it as straightforward as downing a glass of breast milk.
For one thing, HAMLET is not straight breast milk, it’s a complex of partially unfolded α-lactalbumin and oleic acid. To create this, it would require a lab and a hell of a lot of know-how. Equally, many of the immunological and nutritional benefits of breast milk, which some argue could also help people with cancer, would be lost on an adult as we have a totally different gut flora than newborn babies.
"Most of the media conveyed it as something in human milk. The result with the sweeping headlines was extensive republishing of misinformation which people drew on and reposted," said Dr Steele.
People can find frozen human breast milk for sale on social media sites using certain hashtags and keywords, such as #freezerstash. There are even specific websites and forums dedicated to the trade. Notably, however, eBay and Craigslist have banned the trading of milk, and for good reason.
Above all, the researchers argue that this trend is potentially dangerous, even if well-intentioned. Like any bodily fluid, breast milk can harbor all kinds of dangerous pathogens. Online trades regularly mention that they are free of HIV and other infections, but the trade remains totally unregulated. Common viruses that are usually harmless to adults, such as Cytomegalovirus, can also be transmitted and potentially make a person undergoing treatment seriously ill.
"By misreading the HAMLET study, buyers are at the very best losing money and are certainly putting themselves at risk, especially if they are immune compromised," concluded Steele.