Dr. Catharina Svanborg Presents her Research on Cancer-Killing Proteins in Human Milk


In the Foods for Health Institute’s recent seminar, Dr. Catharina Svanborg presented her research on HAMLET, or the human alpha lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells, a milk protein fraction that has the ability to kill cancerous tumor cells. Dr. Svanborg has an appointment as a Principal Investigator in the Singapore Immunology Network and is on leave from her appointments in Lund University as the Professor of Clinical Immunology and Chair of the section Microbiology, Immunology and Glycobiology of the Institute of Laboratory Medicine in Sweden.

Dr. Svanborg began her research by analyzing how specific proteins reacted with cancer cells and, surprisingly, one of the tested protein fractions responded by attacking cancer cells. The effects varied depending on the kind of cancer, and the protein fraction affected carcinoma cell lines from the lung, intestine, liver, or ovaries, differently. This particular protein is from human milk and Dr. Svanborg determined that it actually killed tumors without affecting healthy cells. In order to carry out their functions, protein strands must fold, bend, and twist into various shapes. Up until now it has been thought that proteins can only fold into one functional folded state. Dr. Svanborg and her group are challenging that long held assumption and describing how the protein alpha-lactalbumin can actually fold into a new shape, combine with a fatty acid called oleic acid, and become a new functional protein  that has the ability to target and destroy cancer cells.

Dr. Svanborg focused her research on what entity was killing the cells and determined that a whey protein fraction named human alpha-lactalbumin was responsible for the tumoricidal function. After reexamining the role of the protein, they experimented with alpha-lactalbumin to create a “mutant,” partially-folded form that would not revert to its natural “unfolded” state. Researchers then introduced varieties of fatty acids to reproduce the tumoricidal effects. They finally found success with oleic acid to reproduce the compound, and they named it HAMLET (human alpha lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells).

Dr. Svanborg collaborated with many other scientists and researchers to test for many questions as it relates to the structure and function of HAMLET. Petter Storm, a graduate student in her lab, explained that his work attempts to understand how HAMLET distinguishes between tumor cells and normal cells. Storm recalled a theory from the 1930s, known as the Warburg effect, which proved that all tumor cells have a different metabolism than other kinds of cells. Remembering this, Storm determined that HAMLET exploits the unifying features of cancer cells to cause tumorcide; it accumulates in the tumor and targets tumor cell nuclei.

In vivo testing on mice has found positive effects of HAMLET in reducing cancerous brain tumors. Human tests were carried out with human papillomavirus (HPV) on the skin and the results showed that a topical application of HAMLET reduced and removed the skin papillomas.  Dr. Svanborg collaborated with an urologist to test the efficacy of HAMLET on human bladder cancer because most bladder cancers are already treated with a direct injection of medicine. Since it was not a therapeutic study, Dr. Svanborg cannot say whether or not HAMLET “killed” the cancer, but two hours after bladder cancer patients received the injection of HAMLET their urine samples were full of dead cells, the majority of which were tumor cells.

Dr. Svanborg’s incredible findings have opened new possibilities for cancer research and treatment. The discovery and development of HAMLET will undoubtedly change the way scientists understand the beneficial effects of human milk proteins, and the effects of those proteins on both the prevention and treatment of disease.