Illuminating the Role of Breast Milk in COVID-19 Immunity
Ryan Baker '22
Veterinary and Animal Sciences with a concentration in biotechnology
“Discovering information that no one in the world has seen before is exciting—especially when it is of importance to everyone.”
Ryan Baker ’22 of Middleboro, Mass., was drawn to study veterinary and animal sciences at UMass Amherst because of his “passion for husbandry and admiration for all forms of life.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it opened his eyes to the “importance of the immune system on a global scale” and sparked a new interest in immunology. In January 2021, Baker joined the lab of Kathleen Arcaro, professor of environmental toxicology, whose extensive experience conducting breast-related research positioned her well to study the transfer of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in breast milk, both after vaccination and COVID-19 infection.
Baker worked alongside PhD student Vignesh Narayanaswamy and quickly became an integral member of the lab. He assisted with the collection and processing of milk, maternal blood spots, and infant stool samples, and learned how to conduct immunoassays measuring antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“His work was so accurate that his responsibilities were expanded and soon he was helping to develop new protocols and troubleshoot assays,” recalls Arcaro.
The pride I have for myself has changed forever knowing that I have helped to advance our understanding of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2.
Baker first independently designed and conducted several immunoassays that provided novel evidence that SARS-CoV-2 antibodies are conferred to nursing infants. Through another type of immunoassay, Baker and his lab mates showed that antibodies in the breast milk of people immunized against COVID-19 were effective in protecting their nursing infants against specific variants of concern at the time. Through extensive literature survey, Baker also learned that antibodies make up only part of the story of immunity to SARS-CoV-2, and next designed and executed another type of immunoassay that measured ten different immune-related markers called cytokines.
“We discovered that the milk from COVID-19-immunized women contains elevated levels of certain cytokines, the key one being interferon-gamma. This is a cytokine that helps the immune system promote inflammation and better defend against a viral infection,” he explains. This research led to a co-authored paper in Obstetrics & Gynecology, “Neutralizing Antibodies and Cytokines in Breast Milk After Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) mRNA Vaccination,” and was covered widely in news outlets across the country.
Most recently, Baker has worked on a study to understand the immune response following a COVID-19 infection, rather than vaccination. Baker’s early work processing samples in spring 2021 allowed the lab to cryopreserve cell pellets from breast milk collected four months after a COVID-19 diagnosis, which Baker and Narayanaswamy later used in flow cytometry experiments to determine the extent to which the immune cells in milk contain a memory for the virus.
Working in the Arcaro lab has given Baker extensive experience with laboratory equipment, machines, software, and techniques, and has furthered his communication and presentation skills. It has also sparked in him a passion for research.
“Discovering information that no one in the world has seen before is exciting—especially when it is of importance to everyone,” he says. While the COVID-19 pandemic initially interrupted Baker’s educational experience and dampened his motivation to learn, it ultimately was the basis for “the greatest contribution and academic accomplishment of my life.”
“The pride I have for myself has changed forever knowing that I have helped to advance our understanding of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2,” he says.
After graduating, Baker will pursue a master’s degree in animal biotechnology and biomedical science at UMass Amherst. In the future, he plans to work in the biomedical industry focusing on immunology, and to pursue further education in immunology.