Gene expression in breastmilk cells is associated with maternal and infant characteristics

Alecia Twigger, Anna Hepworth, C. Tat Lai, E. Chetwynd, A.M. Stuebe, Pilar Blancafort, Peter Hartmann, Donna Geddes, Foteini Kakulas

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44 Citations (Scopus)


Breastmilk is a rich source of cells with a heterogeneous composition comprising early-stage stem cells, progenitors and more differentiated cells. The gene expression profiles of these cells and their associations with characteristics of the breastfeeding mother and infant are poorly understood. This study investigated factors associated with the cellular dynamics of breastmilk and explored variations amongst women. Genes representing different breastmilk cell populations including mammary epithelial and myoepithelial cells, progenitors, and multi-lineage stem cells showed great variation in expression. Stem cell markers ESRRB and CK5, myoepithelial marker CK14, and lactocyte marker α-lactalbumin were amongst the genes most highly expressed across all samples tested. Genes exerting similar functions, such as either stem cell regulation or milk production, were found to be closely associated. Infant gestational age at delivery and changes in maternal bra cup size between pre-pregnancy and postpartum lactation were associated with expression of genes controlling stemness as well as milk synthesis. Additional correlations were found between genes and dyad characteristics, which may explain abnormalities related to low breastmilk supply or preterm birth. Our findings highlight the heterogeneity of breastmilk cell content and its changes associated with characteristics of the breastfeeding dyad that may reflect changing infant needs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)Article 12933
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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