Human Breast Milk: Bioactive Components, from Stem Cells to Health Outcomes

  • Flaminia BardanzelluEmail author
  • Diego Giampietro Peroni
  • Vassilios Fanos


Purpose of Review

Breast milk (BM) is a peculiar fluid owing unique properties and resulting the ideal food during early neonatal period. As widely known, it can improve the outcome of both neonate and lactating mother, influencing their whole life. BM is characterized by several beneficial components; among these, a great role is played by BM own and specific microbiome, deeply investigated in many studies. Moreover, the use of metabolomics in BM analysis allowed a better characterization of its metabolic pathways that vary according to lactation stage and neonatal gestational age. The aim of this review is to describe growth factors, cytokines, immunity mediators, and stem cells (SCs) contained in BM and investigate their functions and effects on neonatal outcome, especially focusing on immuno- and neurodevelopment.

Recent Findings

We evaluated recent and updated literature on this field. The article that we analyzed to write this review have been found in MEDLINE using breast milk-derived stem cells, biofactors, growth factors, breastfeeding-related outcomes, neurodevelopment, and neonatal immunological system as keywords. Discovering and characterizing BM components could result very useful to clarify the pathophysiology of their influence on neonatal growth and even to improve artificial formulations’ composition. Moreover, since SCs abilities and their involvement in the development of several diseases, they could help to discover specific targets for new therapies.


It could be useful to characterize BM-derived SC markers, properties, and variations during lactation stages, to understand their potential role in therapeutic applications, since they could be noninvasively isolated from BM. More studies will help to describe more in detail the characteristics of mother-to-child communication through breastfeeding and its potential role in the next future.


Breastfeeding Colostrum Growth factors Stem cells Neonatal outcome Regenerative medicine 



α-linolenic acid


Arachidonic acid


Antibacterial peptides


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor


Breast milk


Breast milk-derived stem cells


Body mass index




Birth weight


Chronic lung disease


Cluster of differentiation




Central nervous system


C-reactive protein




Docosahexaenoic acid


Epidermal growth factor


Epidermal growth factor


Extremely low birth weight


Epithelial-mesenchymal transition


Fatty acids


Fibroblast growth factors


Gestational age


Granulocyte-colony stimulating factor


Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor


Growth factors


Glucagon-like peptide-1


Heparin-binding epidermal growth factor


Embryonic SCs


Hepatocyte growth factor


Human milk oligosaccharides








Insulin growth factors




Linoleic acid




Milk fat globule membrane




Mesenteric lymph nodes


Mesenchymal stem cells


Mucin 1


Homeobox protein


Necrotizing enterocolitis


Neonatal intensive care unit


Natural killers




Octamer-binding transcription factor 4


Retinopathy of prematurity


Stem cells


Small for GA




Sex determining region Y-box


Side population


tdTomato + cells


Transforming growth factor


Tumor necrosis factors


Vascular endothelial growth factor


Very low birth weight


Xanthine oxidoreductase




Authors’ Contributions

VF, DGP, and FB conceptualized the structure of the review. FB provided the literature update and wrote the initial version of the manuscript. VF and DGB critically revised, modified, and approved the work. Finally, all authors approved the final version of the manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Flaminia Bardanzellu, Diego Giampietro Peroni, and Vassilios Fanos declare they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Neonatal Intensive Care UnitAOU University of CagliariMonserratoItaly
  2. 2.Clinical and Experimental Medicine Department, section of PediatricsUniversity of PisaPisaItaly

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