Breast milk contains bioactive molecules that provide a multitude of immunologic, developmental and nutritional benefits to the infant. Less attention has been placed on the cellular nature of breast milk, which contains thousands to millions of maternal cells in every milliliter that the infant ingests. What are the properties and roles of these cells? Most studies have examined breast milk cells from an immunologic perspective, focusing specifically on the leukocytes, mainly in the early postpartum period. In the past decade, research has taken a multidimensional approach to investigating the cells of human milk. Technologic advances in single cell analysis and imaging have aided this work, which has resulted in the breakthrough discovery of stem cells in breast milk with multilineage potential that are transferred to the offspring during breastfeeding. This has generated numerous implications for both infant and maternal health and regenerative medicine. This review summarizes the latest knowledge on breast milk stem cells, and discusses their known in vitro and in vivo attributes as well as potential functions and applications.
© 2014 American Society for Nutrition.