Switzerland is to host the first university medical professorship worldwide for studying the benefits of breast milk – a topic experts say is currently too under-researched. Some have raised eyebrows however about the family foundation backing it.
The professorship for human lactation research is being set up at the University of Zurich. A second professorship in biochemistry for human lactology is being funded at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The institutions’ work will be complementary.
It has already been established that human milk is significant for long-term health: it reduces the short-term morbidity rates among premature and new-born babies and helps prevent allergies. Breast-feeding mothers have been shown to suffer less from post-natal depression and to record fewer cases of breast and ovarian cancer. But why and how breast milk achieves these outcomes is not really yet known, according to backers of the new chairs.
“There is a lack of proper research, on the one hand, and, on the other, we have very many studies reporting just descriptive associations without knowing what’s the mechanism behind that observation,” said Felix Sennhauser, medical director at the University Children's Hospital Zurich, told swissinfo.ch.
“To further improve whatever counselling or for encouraging breastfeeding we have to know the mechanism.”
The Zurich chair, to be established from 2016 for a minimum of 25 years, will be based at the university’s Faculty of Medicine and be under the patronage of the University Children’s Hospital Zurich – itself a renowned institution in Europe – and the Department of Neonatology at the University Hospital Zurich.
The double professorship in Zurich and Perth will give the research a multi-disciplinary approach, with Perth focusing on the biochemistry of breast milk: its production and its content.
“We in Zurich are more interested in the translation: what’s the benefit for the mother-child interaction, for the child being breastfed in the outcome later in childhood, even following the child until adolescence to see how they learn, behave, how they gain prevention against common infectious diseases,” Sennhauser explained.
This is why the Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation – whose founders own the Swiss-based Medela company specialising in breast pumps – is funding the professorships through an endowment of CHF20 million ($21 million).
The University of Zurich was keen to stress however that the Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation would have no influence on the choice of professor or topics being researched.
This follows the controversy surrounding a $100 million sponsoring deal with Swiss bank UBS in 2013 to establish an economics institute.
Former biochemistry professor Gottfried Schatz, one of the first signees of the “Zürcher Appell”, which called for the protection of academic independence over the UBS affair, saw a difference this time. He told a Swiss public television SRF report looking into the independence of the new appointment that whereas the UBS sponsoring was meant to be advertising, the breastmilk professorship was “more of a philanthropic act, a type of patronage – a private fund gives the university money for research”.
But he did criticise the “narrow purpose” of the professorship, saying that this endangered “the university’s mandate and the mandate for long-term research”.
Michael Larsson, president of the foundation and Medela board chairman, said that as a Swiss foundation it was important to look close to home for the professorship. Zurich University has a good reputation, as well as enthusiasm for the research issue, he said.
In Perth he wanted to establish a dedicated human lactation research chair, to continue the work that has been carried out there by the now retired professor Peter Hartmann, with whom the company has cooperated. The endowment there totals AUS$8.6 million (CHF6 million).
The announcement of the human lactation chair in Zurich comes at a time when breastfeeding is on the rise in Switzerland.
According to Swiss Infant Feeding Study published by the Federal Food Safety Office, 95% of women were breastfeeding after birth. 62% exclusively breastfed (no other fluids, foods) in the first three to four months, up 9% on 2003.
Sennhauser said there was, however, no intention of adding to the pressure that new mothers can often feel to breast feed.
Robyn Owens, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Western Australia, pointed out that the work done in Perth might help some new mothers overcome any obstacles. Some women experience problems starting breast feeding or getting the baby to feed.
“We are able to provide clinical advice, first of all to determine whether the mother is producing adequate quantities of milk, secondly to determine if the baby has an appropriate appetite and then thirdly to look at the biomechanics of the baby feeding, to check its action of latching onto the breast and extracting the milk from the breast is occurring optimally. For many women who are having problems sometimes it’s very little intervention that will help the breastfeeding establish optimally,” she said.
The University of Zurich is not intending any industry collaboration. Owens said that the Perth results could be potentially used in many areas, also in industry to optimise products. The main aim was to offer mothers and children better options, she said.
Sennhauser said that the research findings in Zurich would be passed on to those on the front line, like midwives and doctors in training.
Christian Braegger, speaking on behalf of the Committee on Nutrition of the Swiss Society of Paediatrics, welcomed the new chair.
"We think it is very good that an independent research position will be created to investigate the mechanism of the numerous health benefits of human milk," the professor said.
"Zurich is an excellent choice for this new chair as there is already research on these topics going on, in collaboration between different research groups of the Institute of Physiology of the University, the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health of the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition of the Research Center at the University Children’s Hospital.”
Swiss Promotion of Breastfeeding, an association working in the field, said the professorship would help establish the importance of breastfeeding.
"Especially positive is the long-term availability of the professorship,” director Christine Brennan told swissinfo.ch in an email. “We are hoping to work closely with them and make good use of the research results for the good of mothers and their babies.”
The Swiss Society of Paediatrics and the Swiss Society for Nutrition recommends exclusively breastfeeding in the first four to six months and the gradual introduction of suitable baby food between the 5th and 7th months.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends six months’ exclusive breastfeeding and introduction of solids after that, with breastfeeding continuing up to age two years or beyond. However, the Federal Food Safety Office points out that the WHO recommendations are addressed foremost to countries where breast milk is not only a good source of nutrition, but also a cheap and hygienic one.
Source: Federal Food Safety Office