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Ameae Walker

Professor of Biomedical Sciences
Vice Chair, Academic Senate
Distinguished Teaching Professor
Ameae Walker
Disease Protection by Cells in Mother's Milk: A Natural Vaccine
Only about a third of U.S. children are breast-fed any length of time. There is increasing evidence that breast feeding decreases the risk of asthma, diabetes, necrotizing enterocolitis, as well as ear and respiratory infections. Ameae Walker’s research has shown that immune cells in mother's milk foster the healthy development of a baby's immune systems. These cells teach the newborn immune system about diseases the mother has had to combat, and how to distinguish normal from diseased cells.

Areas of Expertise

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • DOD Breast Cancer Research Program Integration Panel (2008-present)
  • Member, UCR Academy of Distinguished Teachers (2006)
  • Chair, Gordon Research Conference on Prolactin (1996)

Research Summary

Prolactin’s growth-factor and cancer-promoting activities; role of milk immune cells in thymus development

Q&A

Q: Tell us why your research is important to society.
We have shown that some immune cells in mother’s milk are specifically taken up by her baby’s tissues, and that they affect development of the baby’s own immune system. Transfer of these cells alters immunity throughout life, including the mechanism that recognizes cancer cells and cells infected with organisms like those that cause tuberculosis. Our research emphasizes another aspect of the importance of breast feeding, and suggests the possibility that we may be able to harness this mechanism to safely enhance infant immunity. We also anticipate learning more about development of the immune system in general, as well as the difference in susceptibility to immune disease between males and females.

Q: What are the big challenges researchers in your field are trying to address?
In the thymus, there are processes referred to as positive and negative selection whereby the immune system can create a strong reaction against abnormal cells and cells harboring invading organisms, without creating autoimmune disease, which is a reaction against normal cells. There is much we don’t yet understand about his process. Milk cells in the thymus can affect both positive and negative selection.

Q: What is the biggest myth about your research?
Because babies grow well on formula, there is a tendency to assume that there is not much benefit to breast feeding in the developed world, where formula can be afforded and prepared with clean water. However, what we don’t know is the long term impact of formula feeding. Epidemiological studies show an apparent higher incidence of a number of diseases, including asthma and both types of diabetes, in those fed formula as infants, but the molecular and cellular mechanisms that might explain this are currently lacking.

Q: What does "Living the Promise" mean to you?
This is a great place to flourish. Even though UCR is now 4 times the size in terms of student body, compared with when I came here, it is still a place where each person matters and can make a difference. It is a university that has world class research and passionate teachers, and challenges you to be both.

Q: What is it about UCR that makes this a great place to do research, compared with other institutions?
For me specifically, it was coming to the Division of Biomedical Sciences rather than joining a traditional disciplinary department at another medical school. The Division is interdisciplinary and this encourages interdisciplinary thought, as well as actual collaborations, all to the benefit of excellence in research.

Q: In your spare time, what are you reading?
"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

Q: Do you have a personal hero?
Gandhi

Q: If you had unlimited resources and no constraints, what would you do to further your research?
I would spend more time on research and hire more people, and less time on trying to keep the program going. We could therefore move forward more quickly. While there are positive aspects to grant writing that include focusing and planning, there is so little money available at the moment that you have to submit more and more grants to stay funded. If you don’t stay funded, you lose great people and then have to try to find and train replacements when funding comes in. It is inefficient and wasteful.

Q: How do your students inspire you?
By their passion and ideas.

Ameae Walker "We have shown that the benefits of breast feeding are manifold, extending far beyond the delivery of nutrients and antibodies to a lifelong influence on a baby's immune system."

—Ameae Walker