UMass team finds COVID-19 antibodies in early breast milk

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus COURTESY PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2021 2:03:48 PM

AMHERST — UMass researchers have discovered COVID-19 antibodies in early breast milk, paving the way for further research on whether these antibodies can protect babies from the virus.

The research, led by UMass doctoral student Vignesh Narayanaswamy, the study’s lead author, and Kathleen Arcaro, professor of environmental toxicology in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, found that, out of 15 participants in the study, all of whom had COVID-19 at some point before giving birth, 14 had antibodies in their early breast milk.

“Potentially, they’re giving protection to their baby … so these could be protective antibodies,” Arcaro said. 

This early breast milk, known as colostrum, is produced in the first few days following childbirth.

More research is needed before the team knows if antibodies in breast milk can help babies develop immunity to COVID-19. But now that the team knows that antibodies are there, they can take the next step to study their effects.

Participants had tested positive for COVID-19 as early as more than four months before delivery, and as late as at delivery, according to the study, and some were asymptomatic.

The research on COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk was a natural extension of Arcaro’s research, she said, which focuses on breast cancer risk factors and prevention. Arcaro was already collecting breast milk from people with the BRCA mutation, which poses an increased risk for breast cancer, and was able to use these similar kits for the research on COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk.

“We were ready to pivot to modifying these kits, changing them to collect from women with COVID,” Arcaro said.

Arcaro and Narayanaswamy were also assisted in the research by undergraduates Rachel Taylor, Riley Burke, Aman Saiju and Sam Nodiff. The team also worked with Heidi Leftwich, a doctor at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

Arcaro’s continuing research focuses on how antibody levels in breast milk change could change over time, and whether antibodies found in breast milk can neutralize any virus that they encounter. She is still recruiting new mothers nationwide who have a current infection, a positive COVID-19 test and are breastfeeding babies less than five months old.

Breastfeeding women infected with the coronavirus who are interested in participating or learning more can email Aracro at breastmilk@umass.edu.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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