Breastfeeding is a topic that creates discussion and at times even controversy. However, some basic questions about its biology still remain. For instance, does successful infant feeding depend on the mechanics of the breast and, conversely, does breast health depend on breastfeeding? It has been virtually impossible to study these complex dynamics and the delicate interplay that makes breastfeeding possible, but a pair of researchers are working together to build a biomimetic breast that will allow scientists to study how the breast behaves during its primary function: infant feeding. Nicole Danos, an assistant professor of biology at the University of San Diego, and her collaborator, Rebecca Z. German, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Northeastern Ohio Medical University, are working together to address a gap in our understanding of breastfeeding mechanics.
The work will be presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics held in Portland, Oregon, Nov. 20-22, 2016.
The idea that mechanics is critical for controlling milk production and flow is already well understood and there is even evidence that it might contribute to breastfeeding's protective function against cancer. Work done by German has provided significant improvements in our understanding of how infants coordinate sucking, breathing and swallowing and what happens during some of the most common neurological traumas of the head and neck in infants. What has been missing is an understanding of the paired mother-infant interaction. This is especially true in an evolutionary context, where there is a need to better understand how important the gland's anatomy and mechanical properties are to infant feeding and how, in turn, infant feeding controls lactation. The development of a biomimetic breast would allow study of this complicated but very basic biological function.
A biomimetic breast is a working model that mimics the form, structure and function of a lactating breast. The first phase will include several iterations of feeding bottles that will have varied exterior wall stiffness and diameter of the tubes through which the milk flows. In the next phase, they want to increase the complexity of the device to add structures that mimic some of the supportive connective tissues. "The strength of our approach, though, lies in the use of the breast device with an animal model of infant feeding along with cutting edge imaging techniques to visualize both milk flow and the function of soft and hard structures in the infant mouth and larynx," Danos said.
This research will fill a void in how we study lactation mechanics. Studying lactation with real mother-infant pairs presents two challenges: Visualizing the flow and tissue mechanics is either impossible or very difficult, and manipulating the mechanical properties of the maternal gland in a controlled way that gets at the factors significantly affecting infant feeding cannot be done. Developing a biomimetic breast will allow both while working in the lab under controlled conditions, and researchers can finally get at what the natural mechanics of breastfeeding look like. Data from these studies will provide the controlled mechanical environment for studies of breast cancer mechanobiology. They may also lead to better feeding bottles for infants and milk pumps for both humans and agricultural mammals. "Our research could even lead to the design of infant feeding devices that closely mimic natural breastfeeding allowing other caretakers, like dads, to feed infants without the limitations of bottle feeding which can be especially critical for infants with health problems," Danos said.
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