, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 211-221
Date: 20 Nov 2007

Initiation of Human Lactation: Secretory Differentiation and Secretory Activation

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Abstract

Theories for the origin of milk have been recorded since the time of Ancient Greeks. In those times it was believed that milk was derived from special vessels that connected the uterus to the breasts. The “chyle theory” on the origin of milk was another prominent theory which persisted well into the nineteenth century before the realisation that milk components were derived from blood and some milk constituents were actually synthesized within the breasts. The demonstration that milk ejection was the expulsion of milk that had already been secreted and that milk secretion was a separate continuous process, set the background for the development for the current understanding of milk synthesis and secretion. Today we know that there are two stages in the initiation of lactation- secretory differentiation and secretory activation. Secretory differentiation represents the stage of pregnancy when the mammary epithelial cells differentiate into lactocytes with the capacity to synthesize unique milk constituents such as lactose. This process requires the presence of a ‘lactogenic hormone complex’ of the reproductive hormones, estrogen, progesterone, prolactin and some metabolic hormones. Secretory activation on the other hand, is the initiation of copious milk secretion and is associated with major changes in the concentrations of many milk constituents. The withdrawal of progesterone triggers the onset of secretory activation but prolactin, insulin and cortisol must also be present. This review describes the works of pioneers that have led to our current understanding of the biochemical and endocrinological processes involved in the initiation of human lactation.