Breast milk is pretty miraculous stuff. Babies who are breastfed have fewer colds, fewer ear infections, better vision, lower rates of infant mortality and lower rates of sudden infant death syndrome. But that’s just the beginning. Researchers at Connecticut Children’s Human Milk Research Center have made groundbreaking breast milk discoveries in the past two years that will save many babies’ lives.
Stopping a Killer in Its Tracks
According to James Moore MD, PhD, the director of the Connecticut Children’s Human Milk Research Center, one of the most feared diseases in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. It’s an acute inflammatory bowel disease that primarily affects premature babies, particularly very early pre-term babies. It causes tissue death in the intestines and has a mortality rate approaching 50 percent.
There are treatment options, but most treatments are only applicable after the disease has started. That’s where breast milk comes in. Breastfeeding a baby cuts the incidence and mortality rate for NEC in half. Connecticut Children’s researchers found that a 10 percent increase in breast milk produces a 10 percent reduction in the incidence of NEC. This discovery is very hopeful, but according to Milk Research Center neonatologist Veronica Fabrizio D.O., many mothers of pre-term infants cannot provide their own milk because of preterm birth, increased stress, delayed milk production and separation from their child, while their baby is hospitalized in the NICU. That’s why Connecticut Children’s established one of the first Donor Human Milk programs in the country in 2010. Mothers who have surplus milk for various reasons donate it to either the Connecticut Children’s Human Milk Depot, or to one of 24 Human Milk Banks that have since been established around the United States and Canada.
Not All Breast Milk is Equal
It would seem that all mothers have to do is breastfeed their babies with their own or other mother’s milk and NEC, as a complication of prematurity would be greatly reduced. But not all breast milk is created equal.
Most people have a gene that tells their body to secrete a specific protein, (also found on our blood type and in all bodily fluids, including breast milk). But 15-30 percent of people are nonsecretors. Current research shows that babies of nonsecreting moms are far more susceptible to NEC: 13 percent of them die from the disease, compared to 2 percent of secretors’ babies.
That raises an obvious question: What would happen if a nonsecretor’s baby was fed with milk from a secretor? Would that baby’s risk of NEC go down? That’s one of the questions Connecticut Children’s researchers at the Human Milk Research Center are hoping to answer. But on the way to answering that question, they came across something no one expected.
Breast Milk Discoveries Predict the Future
Ten years ago, the National Institutes of Health launched one of the most ambitious and potentially important projects in its history. The project—the National Children’s Study—aimed to follow 100,000 children from birth to age 21. The study called for collecting every kind of medical information, including mothers’ milk, stool samples from the children and blood and saliva samples from both mother and child. It was a goldmine for researchers studying children’s health.
Unfortunately, that project was abandoned partway through, but it did produce four years’ worth of data. Connecticut Children’s Human Milk Research Center was the first institution in the country that was allowed to have access to those samples. And when Connecticut Children’s researchers began to analyze them, they made a remarkable discovery.
One of the things they looked at was the mother’s secretor status to see if they could expand on previous understandings of its importance in terms of NEC. But what they found was something else entirely: When they plotted mothers’ secretor status with the birth outcome, they found that a mother who was a nonsecretor had an 86 percent increased risk of preterm birth. And since anyone’s secretor status can be determined from a saliva sample, it means that doctors can screen any pregnant woman and have a reliable tool for helping predict a mother at increased risk for preterm birth.
They can then monitor those pregnancies, help mothers take preventative steps and be prepared for possible problems. This is a major finding, and has been presented at both national and international meetings.
Meanwhile, the Human Milk Research Center continues to grow and explore new avenues of investigation.
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