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New study focuses on how breastmilk protects tiny premature babies from deadly infections

30th May 2019

Researchers at Northumbria University are studying the components of breast milk to find out more about their protective effects which are believed to reduce the risk of potentially fatal infections in premature babies.

Each year around 10,000 babies are born extremely prematurely – before 32 weeks of pregnancy – in the UK. Despite huge advances in neonatal care, estimates suggest that up to 4,000 will develop a serious bowel disease and/or a blood infection known as sepsis after birth. Sadly, many babies lose their lives due to a bowel disease called necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) and sepsis, which are the biggest threats to very premature babies after the first week of life. Those who survive are often left with lifelong disabilities including cerebral palsy. Sepsis and NEC are thought to be linked to imbalances in the community of microorganisms living inside the baby’s gut – the microbiome.

Evidence suggests that the immune-boosting factors in breast milk, rather than the nutrients, help to prevent and treat these life threatening infections. With funding of £175,826 from children’s charity Action Medical Research, Dr Darren Smith and his team at Northumbria will study certain types of viruses within breast milk.

“Developing a better understanding of what components of breast milk provide these protective effects and how they work could lead to new ways to prevent or treat these complex, life-threatening illnesses in vulnerable babies,” explains Dr Smith.

“Our aim is to investigate if viruses – known as phages – in breast milk play a part in protecting very preterm babies from serious illnesses.”

Phages are viruses that infect and kill bacteria – and the team believes that they may help to support babies’ inexperienced immune systems and to shape and maintain a healthy microbial gut community.

“We will first carry out a detailed census of the phages in breast milk samples collected from the mothers of very preterm babies,” says Dr Smith.

The team will then investigate the influence of breast milk phages on bacterial communities in the guts of newborn babies. They will also determine how phages are carried in breast milk, which could have implications for its handling and storage in special care baby units. Dr Smith and his team will analyse up to up to 100 ‘paired’ samples of breast milk and stools from mothers and their very premature babies – those born before 32 weeks – that have been stored, with parental consent, in the Great North Neonatal Biobank. During the two year study, they will also analyse fresh samples from mothers and their very premature babies.

“Our work could shed new light on how we might help protect preterm babies from life-threatening illnesses, which we hope will one day lead to improvements in neonatal care and treatment,” says Dr Smith.

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