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Protein found in breast milk may protect infants from deadly gastrointestinal disease

Breast milk

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(NaturalNews) A potentially lethal gastrointestinal disease that primarily affects premature newborns may be prevented by a protein found in breast milk -- but not in formula -- according to a study conducted by researchers from Children's Hospital Los Angeles, the University of Iowa and Northwestern University. The study was published online ahead of print in the American Journal of Pathology on September 9.

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) kills 30 percent of infants affected, and the rest may suffer lifelong complications including needing to have part of their intestine removed and be fed intravenously. One of the known risk factors for the disease is formula feeding.

"NEC is a highly morbid disease that can lead to multiple complications, including intestinal strictures, short gut syndrome, repeated surgeries, and extended hospital stays," said researcher Mark R. Frey, PhD. "Advances in understanding the growth factor signaling cascades that maintain the healthy developing intestine could lead to new methods for treating or preventing this devastating illness."

Breastmilk protects intestine from later shocks

Prior studies have suggested a potential connection between a protein known as
neuregulin-4 (NRG4) and protection against the disease. Because NEC is known to be characterized by the loss of specialized intestinal cells known as Paneth cells, the researchers first looked at how NRG4 affected Paneth cell loss in rodents.

Paneth cells play an important role in protecting the intestine from damage by microbes, as well as maintaining healthy populations of intestinal stem cells. Intestinal stem cells, in turn, are essential to ensure the ongoing ability of the intestine to regenerate from damage and disease.

The researchers fed rodents either human breast milk or human infant formula, then exposed them to bacterial strains suspected to trigger NEC in humans. They found that the formula-fed rodents exhibited loss of Paneth cells, but the human breast-milk-fed rodents did not. The researchers then performed a similar experiment using human cell lines in the laboratory, with similar results.

The researchers then performed a chemical analysis of both breast milk and infant formula, confirming that NRG4 is found only in breast milk, not in formula.

"Our research suggests that without the NRG4 protein found in breast milk, a normal protection mechanism for the immature gut may be missing," Frey said. "If a baby on formula encounters an NEC trigger such as intestinal infection or injury, he or she may be at increased risk for a life-threatening condition."

The research suggested that NRG4 may bind to a specific receptor in the intestine, protecting the organ from inflammatory damage.

"We're finding a protective protein in breast milk, with its receptor in the intestine," Frey said. "Given that NEC is a significant clinical problem without an effective treatment, we plan to evaluate NRG4 for its therapeutic potential in this disease."

Breast is still best!

Research has repeatedly confirmed that breast milk is the ideal food for a human infant, providing 100 percent of the nutrition needed for the first six months of life, in addition to providing important antibodies and other forms of immune protection. The World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the Canadian Pediatric Society are among the institutions that recommend breastfeeding for the first two years.

"Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond," WHO says.

Research has shown that the mother's body automatically adapts the content of breast milk to meet the child's needs, both nutritional and immunological. For example, the relative fat, protein and carbohydrate content of the milk changes to be appropriate to the child's phase of growth, as is its antibody content. The antibody content of breast milk even changes when a child becomes ill.

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