While mesothelioma treatments can improve life for people with the disease, they do not offer a cure.
This leads some patients to consider complementary and alternative medicine. One alternative cancer therapy involves ingesting human breast milk to “treat” cancer.
In 1995, a research team at Lund University in Sweden discovered a component in human breast milk kills tumor cells without harming mature, healthy cells.
Further research developed a substance that combined a protein common in breast milk with oleic acid. This potential chemotherapeutic agent is called Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumor cells, abbreviated as HAMLET.
This highlights two important considerations about breast milk research.
First, plain breast milk is not the substance used in cell and mice model studies. Substances in breast milk were modified in a lab and then used to treat cancer cells and animal tumors.
Second, most research on the anti-cancer effects of HAMLET — the chemically altered breast milk component — only applies to in vitro and animal studies.
Can HAMLET Treat Mesothelioma?
We do not know if HAMLET will have any effect on mesothelioma or other human cancers if taken orally.
As with many anti-cancer substances, these products often kill cancer in a petri dish or a test tube, only to be found useless for treating cancer in humans.
If taken as a dietary supplement or medication, the active ingredients may be broken down before they leave the digestive tract.
They never reach cancer cells at distant points in the body.
One Small Human Study
In 2007, researchers at Lund University published a paper on HAMLET treatment in nine patients with early stage bladder cancer. There was no untreated control group included in the trial.
HAMLET was injected directly into the patients’ bladders after diagnosis, but before surgical treatment to remove the bladder tumor. Each patient received five injections each day for one week prior to surgery.
The researchers noted bladder cancer cells were shed at a higher rate after HAMLET administration than before. Most of the shed cells were dead and showed signs of a type of programmed cell death in six of nine patients.
Study authors reported tumor reduction or favorable changes in tumor characteristics in eight of nine patients.
What Does This Mean for Mesothelioma Patients?
Based on cell and animal studies in addition to one small bladder cancer clinical trial, there is no way to know whether HAMLET would be helpful to people with mesothelioma.
The two main types of the cancer are pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. The tissues affected have a limited blood supply making it difficult to deliver any substance — including those taken orally — to the tumors.
Even chemotherapy for mesothelioma is often delivered directly to the tumor. These procedures are known as:
- Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, which is used to treat peritoneal mesothelioma.
- Hyperthermic intrathoracic chemotherapy, administered to treat pleural mesothelioma.
Taking chemotherapy orally or through an IV often does not allow enough of the drugs to reach the tumor for optimal treatment outcomes.
These therapies highlight the difficulty for breast milk consumed by mouth to reach mesothelioma tumors.
Reasons Mesothelioma Patients Should Avoid Breast Milk
Most breast milk donated and provided to newborn babies is provided via milk banks. Milk banks for infants screen donated human milk for bacteria and viruses.
They also treat milk with heat or ultraviolet radiation in a process similar to cow milk pasteurization. This reduces the risk of transmitting infections via contaminated breast milk.
These milk banks do not provide milk to adults.
Breast milk obtained through channels other than well-supervised milk banks may be contaminated with infections agents. Breast milk can contain cytomegalovirus, herpesvirus and human papilloma virus, for example.
Cancer patients can be immune compromised, meaning they are very susceptible to infections. This makes these viruses especially dangerous to mesothelioma patients.
Focus on Proactive Mesothelioma Management Options
Instead of trying unproven and potentially harmful alternatives such as human breast milk, focus on proven approaches to support health through mesothelioma therapy.