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$100K Award Supports Human Milk and Infectious Disease Research

Two of University of California San Diego’s leading scientific institutes, the PREPARE Institute and the Human Milk Institute (HMI), recently partnered to award $100,000 in funding to co-investigators Sandra Leibel, MD, associate clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and Ratneshwar Lal, PhD, professor of Bioengineering, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. The developmental grant was created to encourage multidisciplinary breakthroughs in pandemic prevention and human milk research. 

Through their project titled “Breast Milk Infectious Disease Test via GFET-aptamer Biosensor,” the collaborative team is seeking to develop a biosensor platform to easily detect infection-related cytokines and viral proteins associated with pandemic pathogens that pose a risk to infant, maternal and public health.   

There is an unaddressed need for additional research on human milk given the ongoing threat of emerging infectious diseases of pandemic potential and concerns about the safety of human milk during pandemic times, as well as the prospect of novel therapies derived from human milk’s bioactive compounds. While many are familiar with important aspects of pandemic research due to ongoing outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2, a public understanding of human milk and its untapped potential for medical breakthroughs is more limited. 

“Having a rapid and accurate diagnostic tool to detect viral pathogens in human milk is vital for providing optimal care to infants,” said Leibel, a neonatologist at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego who is serving as the grant’s junior investigator. “Such a tool would enable the detection of viral agents before they can be transmitted from mothers to infants, allowing for timely interventions and preventive measures. The development of a novel biosensor that can detect infectious agents is crucial for pandemic preparedness and response, significantly contributing to safeguarding public health, particularly during pandemics when breastfeeding plays a crucial role in ensuring the well-being of newborns.” 

According to the researchers, the health benefits of human milk and breastfeeding, particularly for preterm infants, cannot be overstated. We know that human milk offers protection against infections, promotes maternal-infant bonding and reduces the risk of many long-term health complications, however, human milk is still susceptible to pathogen transmission. Continued multidisciplinary research on the advantages of human milk and the advancement of cutting-edge diagnostic tools are vital to ensuring safety and optimizing the nutritional support provided to infants. 

"We all want to know, are we sick or not? Are we infected or not? Are we safe from an emerging bio-threat or not,” said Lal. “Our nanotechnology platform combining wireless electronic chips and specific molecular sensors will provide answers to all of those questions. And we can do it ourselves wherever we are and whenever we want, using simple portable devices and sensors. As an expert in nanotechnology and nanomedicine, I know that this patented platform technology can be used seamlessly for rapid infection screening and the early detection of emerging human diseases.”

Joyce Pritchett