Flavoured ice cubes containing the breast milk of women who have had Covid-19 could help fight off the life-threatening infection, scientists say.
Dutch researchers claim to have found antibodies in 30 mothers’ breast milk after they recovered from Covid-19.
Breast milk could therefore be used to protect the most vulnerable people in the event of a second wave, experts claimed.
They said the best way to provide this would not be a drink, but rather sucking an ice cube.
This, they claim, gives the antibodies more of a chance to latch on to the mucous membranes of the mouth and airways, where they can prevent the coronavirus from spreading further in the body.
The blood of Covid-19 survivors, rich in antibodies, is already being used to treat patients, including in the UK.
Using breast milk is a ‘strange picture’, the Dutch team admit – but if it can help to prevent infection, it should not be frowned upon.
Thousands of women have responded to a campaign asking them to donate 100ml of breast milk for further research.
The thick yellowish milk (colostrum) produced for the first few days following birth is particularly rich in antibodies against other viruses, such as chickenpox, according to the NHS.
Flavoured ice cubes containing the breast milk of women who have had Covid-19 could help fight off the life-threatening infection, Dutch scientists say (stock)
The antibodies are not destroyed by pasteurisation – a heating process necessary in order to kill pathogens before it can be drunk by other people. This means they could be pasteurised and then made into a form of ice cream or ice cubes and given to patients suffering the infection, it is claimed (stock of milk cubes)
The initial study, a collaboration between Emma Children’s Hospital of Amsterdam UMC and other institutes, started in April.
Dr Britt Van Keulen, of the Dutch Breast milk bank of Amsterdam UMC, said: ‘We know breast milk protects newborn children against respiratory infections.
‘That’s because there are antibodies in breast milk. By breastfeeding, the mother passes on her own antibodies to her child. ‘
Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system in response to the presence of a foreign substance, like the coronavirus.
The role of antibodies is to latch on to invading pathogens and mark them for other immune cells, such as T-cells, to kill.
Neutralising antibodies are able to kill the virus themselves, rather than just tagging it for other immune cells to attack.
Researchers recruited 30 women who had already recovered from Covid-19.
They claim laboratory experiments showed the antibodies they found are powerful enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus, The Times reported.
But there do not appear to be findings published in a medical journal or elsewhere.
The antibodies are not destroyed by pasteurisation – a heating process necessary in order to kill pathogens in breast milk before it can be drunk by other people.
This means they could be pasteurised and then made into a form of ice cream or ice cubes and given to patients suffering the infection, it is claimed.
Dr Van Keulen said the antibodies need to be in contact with mucous membranes – a layer of cells surrounding body organs that secrete a thick fluid protecting the inside of the body from pathogens such as viruses.
This is why an ice cube is the most attractive form of giving the breast milk because it needs to be sucked on.
Dr Van Keulen said: ‘When you drink it, it disappears quickly. Our idea is to give it in the form of ice cubes, so it takes a little longer, there is longer contact with the mucous membranes to create that layer.’
Hans Van Goudoever, head of Emma Children’s Hospital, said: ‘We think that after drinking the milk, the antibodies attach themselves to the surface of our mucous membranes. There they attack the virus particles before they enter the body. ‘
Treatments would not be available on a mass scale because of the limited quantities of breast milk.
But it could also be used to protect vulnerable people, such as elderly residents during an outbreak at a care home or young children.
‘In that case, breast milk could possibly be used for risk groups when a second corona wave occurs,’ said Dr Van Goudoever.
‘You would have to give the milk for ten days. After that, the virus will hopefully have left that nursing home.’
Dr Van Keulen said: ‘It is perhaps a strange picture, elderly people drinking breast milk.
‘But if it protects against a deadly virus, we should just get over that embarrassment.’
The researchers pleaded for thousands of women to donate breast milk, even if they have not had not been formally diagnosed with Covid-19, in order to detect how prevalent the antibodies are among nursing mothers.
The response has been ‘overwhelming’, a spokesperson for the hospital told The Brussels Times.
Some 5,000 women have responded to the call to donate 100ml of breast milk in the name of coronavirus research.
The researchers initially said it would be ‘difficult’ to get responses because few pregnant women are known to have had Covid-19 infection.
‘Women who have been infected with corona unnoticed may also have produced antibodies that can be found in the milk,’ Dr Van Goudoever said.
‘We are therefore looking for mothers who have (possibly) been infected with the corona virus, but even if this is not the case, a mother can register.’
The team will now try to determine what percentage of mothers’ milk contains antibodies.
It remains to be seen whether the breast milk is indeed effective as a preventive treatment against the coronavirus.
But Dr Van Keulen is hopeful because of information about a pregnant woman during the 2003 outbreak of SARS – a related human coronavirus.
She said: ‘This woman became seriously infected with the SARS virus and gave birth to a healthy baby at 38 weeks.
‘Antibodies to that virus were found in her breast milk. If you know that the coronavirus is very similar to the SARS virus – they are from the same family – then I think that corona antibodies can also end up in breast milk.’
Antibodies are a promising line of Covid-19 treatment because they could be used to bolster the immune system of people struggling to fight off the infection.
The blood of Covid-19 survivors, rich in antibodies, is already being used to treat patients.
The treatment — used for around a century for other infections — works using the liquid part of the blood, known as convalescent plasma.
This antibody-rich plasma is injected into Covid-19 patients struggling to produce their own antibodies, with hopes it can help clear the virus.
Other therapies in the pipeline, such as injections, use laboratory genetically engineered antibodies.
Administered in doses like a vaccine, scientists say antibodies could give humans the ability to avoid being struck down by the disease.