Breast milk isn't just for babies at the Mothers' Milk Bank, which quietly offers it to adults with cancer and other serious illnesses to ease their symptoms. The San Jose milk...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Breast milk isn’t just for babies at the Mothers’ Milk Bank, which quietly offers it to adults with cancer and other serious illnesses to ease their symptoms.

The San Jose milk bank is one of six in the United States. It distributes donated breast milk primarily to premature and low-birth-weight babies. However, it also will provide breast milk to adults with a doctor’s prescription.

Adult use of breast milk is rare, said Pauline Sakamoto of the San Jose milk bank, which has served 28 adult patients in the past four years. Adults with cancer, digestive disorders and immune disorders may drink several ounces of milk daily or weekly to ease the side effects of chemotherapy, bolster their immune systems or improve their digestion, she said.

No national figures exist for adult use of breast milk, but an informal survey of milk banks suggests that they serve dozens of adult patients.

Breast milk’s benefits for babies have been well-documented, with research showing that it helps fight infection, improves immune-system function, increases intelligence and combats later obesity.

But can it help sick grown-ups? No one knows because so little research has been done.

Swedish researchers in 1995 isolated a protein in mothers’ milk that seemed to kill cancer cells in a test tube. And they are working on developing a drug that takes advantage of that protein. The same research team in 2004 found another compound that destroys many kinds of skin warts, raising expectations that the compound could help treat cervical cancer and other diseases caused by the human papillomavirus.

But most doctors are skeptical about the value of breast milk for adults, and mainstream medicine seems to consider it to be on the fringe.

Although Dr. Michelle Melisko, an oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco, acknowledged that mothers’ milk probably won’t hurt her patients, she worries about quality control — some viral particles can be passed through breast milk — and said she would advise them against using it.

“I’d say the same thing I say to all my patients who want to do alternative things: I don’t know how it’s tested,” Melisko said. “Patients are potentially exposing themselves to as many risks by taking milk from an unknown source … [as] by taking herbs that come in a bag.”

Yet Margit Hamosh, professor emeritus at Georgetown University and an expert in the biochemistry of human milk, said breast milk contains compounds “that might definitely help in people who have compromised immune systems in the same way they might help the newborn.”

Howard Cohen, a Palo Alto, Calif., software consultant with a doctorate in theoretical physics, said he can live with the lack of medical evidence. He’s his own study. Cohen thinks the twice-weekly smoothies he makes with breast milk and fruit have helped put his prostate cancer into remission and allowed him to avoid more invasive treatment, such as surgery.

“You give this stuff to newborn babies,” Cohen said. “It can’t be toxic.”

After he was diagnosed in 1999, his wife found an article about the Swedish research on breast milk and cancer cells. A friend who was lactating donated milk, and Cohen soon found that his levels of prostate-specific antigen, a warning sign of cancerous cells, dropped to normal. His doctor, a UC-San Francisco urologist, was skeptical but open to Cohen’s self-treatment as long as his blood work looked fine.

Cohen undergoes blood tests and other screenings regularly, and there have been no signs of cancer for 2½ years, he said. It’s possible, of course, that without the breast milk, Cohen’s prostate cancer might have grown so slowly that his health would not be compromised; that happens in many cases.

Still, Cohen believes. Indeed, when he temporarily stopped breast milk, his PSA levels rose. “It works,” he said.

Patty, a health educator who asked that her last name not be used, said breast milk seems to be helping her 15-year-old son, who has Crohn’s disease, a serious bowel disorder that can stunt growth and destroy the liver.

“This is like liquid gold,” she said. “We have this incredible untapped resource that we’ve only looked at for what it can give babies. I’d love for more studies to be done on this. There’s got to be something helpful going on.”