SME Herts Awards – we won!

Team HMB had an evening off to attend the Small and Medium Enterprise Awards at the Watford Coliseum last night – the event was sponsored by the Federation of Small Businesses, Regus, Clydesdale  Bank and a number of local organisations and councils, with over 300 guests and finalists. The opening speech was made by the inspirational David Clarke, British team football captain and three-time Paralympian, and we enjoyed chatting to some amazing people from businesses across Hertfordshire.

Against eight other finalists in the Best New Business award, we took the runner-up spot. Thinking that was it for the night, Gillian kicked off her shoes and I started texting the babysitter to say we would be back soon. When the Hearts Milk Bank was read out as the winner of the Best Not-for-Profit organisation in Hertfordshire, our table erupted! After the presentation and photos were taken, we celebrated with cups of tea, delighted that another room full of people now knew about the work of milk banks. 

So it is back to work with a vengeance this morning – catching up on everything that has happened in the last week with Gillian manning the fort alone (the Shenker tribe took a much-needed break to lovely Wales), and excited for all the plans unfolding. More news coming soon!

Awards sitting in their new home in the HMB office at the UH Biopark!


Up and running!

After 3 months of hard work in the lab, and thanks to the help and support of so many hundreds of people, we are up and running! We have recruited scores of wonderful milk donors who are sending milk into the bank via the fab SERV volunteer couriers, and the team has been working flat out to process it and make sure our systems are robust and safe. So much good stuff is happening, and we will fill you in properly over the next few days and weeks as it all settles down (um, if it ever does settle down…). But tonight was a night to pause, celebrate our team and eat!

(PS Sending love out to the missing Gillian Weaver, who is currently in Kenya working with PATH to finalise the establishment of the first milk bank in East Africa!)

A wonderful day at the Lexi

We are so grateful to Cordelia and all in the NWL Breastfeeding Group who put on such a fantastic event today at the beautiful Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise.

The venue was almost sold out with old friends and new, in addition to whatever the collective noun for a plethora of lovely babies is (answers below to that one please!).

The stunning film and gentle soundtrack seemed to lull the babies to sleep, and it was the women shedding tears throughout rather than the babies.

Together, everyone raised almost £600 today! This will make a massive difference, and we are hoping to talk with the film-maker, Noemi Weis, so that we can organise our own screening of the film later this year in Hertfordshire. Watch this space!

Natalie and Silke after the film, still a bit red-eyed…

Come and see a film to support the Hearts Milk Bank

With one week to go, we ask you all to come and see Milk – Born into this World with us – hear about our work, the progress as we get everything set up, and the research we will be starting up this year:

MILK – Born into this World

a film by Noemi Weis

The Lexi Cinema, 194B Chamberlayne Rd, Kensal Green, London NW10 3JU

Wednesday 17th May 2017: 11am to 1pm

Through an intimate and artistic lens, Milk brings a universal perspective on the politics, commercialisation and controversies surrounding birth and infant feeding over the canvas of stunningly beautiful visuals and poignant voices from around the globe. Inspiring, informative, provocative and sensitive, Milk celebrates bringing a new life into this world with a strong call to action and reflection.

Tickets are £15 per person, babes in arms are very welcome

Any profit will go to the Hearts Milk Bank!

To buy your ticket, please email


Setting up

All has been quiet recently on our blog, as we have been rather busy. The Hearts Milk Bank signed our contract with the University of Hertfordshire 2 weeks ago, and moved into the Biopark straight away. The set-up plan that had been waiting then swung into action!

Equipment has been bought, delivered and installed, and supplies are now filling every available cupboard. And most importantly, our first donors have been recruited and their milk is starting to fill up the freezers. After a deep clean next week, and a last deep breath, the first donor milk will be processed and shortly after available to hospitals.

If you are a breastfeeding mum and have a lot of milk stored, or would like to donate over a number of months, please get in touch – we would love to send you more information about the process of becoming a milk donor if you email us at

Thank you for reading, and to all of you who have supported us over the last year!

Natalie and Gillian

One girl takes fundraising to new heights

At the end of 2016, Gillian and I had a very special afternoon when we were invited to a gymnastics display organised by Ruby Robinson, a member of the Richmond Gymnastics Association.

We were not quite sure what to expect, but the hour that followed went beyond our wildest dreams! Gymnast after gymnast came tumbling out, sometimes with as many as 20 on the mat at one time, performing balletic pieces to dramatic music with incredible tumbles and throws. I have to confess I watched one small boy being repeatedly thrown 20 feet in the air through my fingers, but am glad to say he was caught just in time every time, with a massive smile on his face!

The gymnasts included the RGA display team, the current national champions in acrobatics and tumbling, several GB squad competitors and the trio who represented Great Britain at the Olympic Gala in Rio (pictured).

Britain’s acrobatic group Jennifer Bailey, Katrina Fearon and Roxanna Parker perform during the gymnastics exhibition gala at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, 2016. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

But the real star of the show was Ruby. Her mother told us, “She started doing gymnastics when she was five and has gone on to compete regionally and nationally with the acrobatic gymnastics squad. When her aunt Naomi told her about Hearts Milk Bank and what they do, she decided this was the cause she wanted to take on.”

Ruby herself said, “It was fun because I really liked balancing on someone’s shoulders,” she said. “I made a speech to everyone about the Hearts Milk Bank and RGA. My friends were there and they liked it and I feel happy that I can help children and babies.”

The RGA is a charity itself, with an extensive programme for gymnasts with special needs or disabilities, in stand-alone classes or integrated into the main programme. The RGA has a number of Regional and National Disability Acrobatic Champions, alongside medallists from the London Disability Floor and Vault Championships.

Ruby’s fundraising continued after the display, with family and friends raising a grand total of almost £1500 for the Hearts Milk Bank. This fantastic amount will be massively useful as we start setting things up, and we will be making sure every penny is spent to get us off to the best start possible.


MassChallenge UK – we won Gold!

Almost the whole HMB team was out in force last night (missed you Silke) to attend the MassChallenge UK Awards ceremony,

As part of the final cohort of 20 finalist organisations, Natalie gave a final 1-minute pitch to an audience of 500 journalists, investors, academics and supporters. Graeme, our Board Chair, was also there, as well as Naomi, milk bank supporter and volunteer, and Dr James Flanagan from the Imperial College Epigenetics Unit. And yes, she really was 20 feet up on a stage…

The tension mounted throughout the evening as speeches were made, and then the awards of the night were announced. We were astonished to hear the words Hearts Milk Bank announced by sponsors VIIV Healthcare as one of the three Gold Award winners for £10,000! The award was presented with Queen belting out ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ in the background – a fitting theme!


We have some ambitious plans for how this can be combined with the crowdfunding sum raised at the end of last year that we can’t wait to share once the details have been worked out, and are incredibly grateful to have had the chance to take part in such an energising process as MassChallenge. But before any more calls or emails could be sent this morning, the award had to be thoroughly examined by the smallest Team HMB member….

Onwards and upwards!

Breastfeeding and breast cancer risk: what are the facts?

A very happy new year to you all! I’ve been writing this blog over Christmas for the new GP Infant Feeding Network’s website, and wanted to share it here too. The GPIFN is a fantastic organisation, founded last year by Dr Louise Santharam, which aims to enhance medical education around breastfeeding issues so that all doctors, and GPs in particular, have more expertise to deal with lactation problems in the community.

One of the reasons why breastfeeding is important for maternal health is in the reduction in risk of breast and ovarian cancer (World Cancer Research Fund, 2014; Lancet breastfeeding series, Jan 2016).

My PhD at Imperial was in breast cancer risk and focused for the last couple of years on looking for biomarkers of risk in breast milk – could we find markers in the genetic material found in cells from breast milk that could confirm the changes we were seeing in blood cells from women at high risk of breast cancer? If we could, then a new tool to enhance screening women could be developed.

Doing a PhD means a lot of reading around the main subject you are working on, and allowing yourself to be led down some interesting paths as a consequence. I rapidly became fascinated with the papers I was reading about the possibility of reducing the risk of cancer by breastfeeding, as it just didn’t match up with my medical training. When I was at medical school, we were taught about breast cancer by breast surgeons, who would write up a list of risk factors on the board – high risks were age, family history, etc. Moderate risk factors included hormonal factors (early menarche, late menstruation, parity, age at first child). Breastfeeding was classed as a low risk modifier – the published estimates back then were a reduction in risk of only about 4-5% for every year a woman breastfeeds over a lifetime (Lancet, 2002).

Biology moves on though, and since 2002 molecular medicine has been able to look at cancers from thousands of different women. These studies have shown that ductal breast carcinomas, the most common form of breast cancer (>95%), cluster into five main biological types: luminal A, luminal B, HER2 positive, basal and the claudin-low/normal type (Perou, 2000; Sorlie, 2003 [figure of dendrogram showing clustering below]).

Many, many more subtypes are and will be discovered as genetic and pathological checks get even better, but these five subtypes are important, as they likely indicate tumours that originate from different cells of origin within the breast ducts (Visvader, 2014; see figure below).

It became apparent last year that these subtypes were also important for the impact of breastfeeding. A meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies that divided studies of risk according to breast cancer subtype showed no effect of breastfeeding on the hormone receptor subtypes (luminal A, B and HER2), which make up 70-75% of breast cancers (Islami, 2015). However, it did show a 16-24% risk reduction for triple negative breast cancers (TNBC, tumour cells do not express oestrogen and progesterone receptors or HER2/ERBB2 receptors; shown in the Forest plot below reproduced from Islami’s paper).

This systematic review looked at ‘ever breastfeeding’, rather than the duration of breastfeeding, as there were not enough studies that had recorded that to be analysed. Given that most studies have shown breastfeeding to have a dosage effect (the longer a woman breastfeeds, the lower their breast cancer risk), future studies that look specifically at these tumours may show a greater effect with prolonged breastfeeding duration.

TNBCs are one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. These tumours tend to occur in younger women and those with genetic mutations. Pregnancy-associated breast cancers also tend to be TNBCs. These are cancers that are diagnosed during pregnancy and, although the cut off is unclear, for up to 5 years after birth.

The mechanism, or mechanisms, that explain how breastfeeding reduces TNBC risk are not clear, but are the subject for a future blog and a great deal of future research, some of which we are hoping to facilitate in the future at the Hearts Milk Bank. However, a small number of women (approximately 100-120 each year in the UK) who breastfeed will still develop aggressive breast cancers. As with everything in medicine and public health, breastfeeding protects some, but in others the mechanisms will a) be inadequate and the cancer would develop anyway, or b) the molecular and cellular mechanisms that occur in preparing for and performing lactation may trigger some women with a specific genetic make up to develop a cancer.


So, is breastfeeding protective from breast cancer? For the majority of tumours, perhaps not, but more research is needed to look at the effect of long-term breastfeeding on the other subtypes of breast cancer. However, for the 20-30% of TNBCs with the worst prognosis, which affect premenopausal women, breastfeeding is probably a very powerful way to reduce risk. At the Hearts Milk Bank, we will be working with scientists across a range of fields to facilitate research that can determine how this effect happens.


Thank you!

Our Indiegogo crowdfunder closed yesterday morning, having raised the fantastic total of over £14,500 to go towards our equipment costs! Within half an hour of it closing, we received four emails from people who had missed the deadline but wanted to donate – therefore, we have added a PayPal donate button to our homepage. If you missed donating but would really like to and prefer not to use PayPal, please get in touch by and we will send you our bank details.

This was a huge team effort, and Gillian and I not only thank every one of the 227 people who contributed financially, but the huge numbers of people who helped to make it happen.

The film was shot over a weekend at the home of Silke and Frank Durm, who both gave their time and a huge amount of effort to hire the equipment the weekend before, and provide such a warm welcome and hospitality to the milk bank team who moved in for 48 hours! This simply could not have happened without them.

The film itself was directed by the wonderful Meg Thompson, a renowned film producer who guided the rather nervous novice group of milk bankers and parents, and showed no fear of working with the large number of children who took part! And the beautiful quality of the film is completely due to a pair of very talented videographers, Kotryna Sniukaite and Jason Chua, who gave up not only their weekend, but many many hours thereafter to cut the six hours of interviews down to the final four minutes.

And then the music. The beautiful track Angel was sung by Claire Tchaikowski and arranged by the awe-inspiring Neil Davidge (Massive Attack was the soundtrack to my medical school days…!). It isn’t every day that two such talented people pop out of the woodwork and offer to help for free, but given the number of times it has happened over the last nine months, we now just accept the universe is trying its best to help.

Finally, we were supported day by day throughout the campaign by Naomi and Silke who divided up sending thank yous to everyone who donated, and by the army of Tweeters and Facebookers who shared our posts, especially Simon at Facebook who went above and beyond to ensure that we reached as far and wide as possible! Facebook loves breastfeeding – who knew?!

The campaign had its ups and downs, and looking back over the last two months we have learned so much from our early mistakes. Throughout, we weathered family crises, looking after poorly kids and keeping life going while knowing another Tweet could help bring more vital funds in, if I could just get the message across in 140 characters. I’ve gained a heap more grey hairs but an unshakable conviction that this milk bank will work, and a bright 2017 is ahead!

So on behalf of this wonderful team, thank you to everyone who helped, baked cookies, ate cookies, and put in your hard earned money!

Milk and cookie parties – the start of a tradition!

It’s World Prematurity Day! To mark the day and celebrate all families affected when children are born too soon, a series of Milkshake and Cookies have been going on today across the country. There has been a lot of laughter, hugs, tears and much needed fundraising going on – here is Gillian at an event in south London today!


To mark the day, we have also launched a 2 minute appeal for the Hearts Milk Bank ( that will lead onto a series of podcasts that cover the range of our work in collaboration with – a new and exciting social enterprise that aims to give people a voice online. Please listen and share as widely as possible, and listen out for more coming soon.

Best wishes to all, and thank you for your ongoing support,

Natalie and Gillian