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Breast Milk Can Reduce Risk of Gastrointestinal Diseases

Breast feeding can potentially protect premature babies from a toxic gastrointestinal disease, according to a recent study published in in the American Journal of Pathology.

Breast feeding can potentially protect premature babies from a toxic gastrointestinal disease, according to a recent study published in in the American Journal of Pathology.

Researchers from the Saban Research Institute at the Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles discovered that the protein neuregulin-4 (NRG4), which exists in breast milk but is not found in baby formula, has positive effects on protecting newborns from the debilitating intestinal disease, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).

Breast feeding has long been lauded a more favorable alternative to formula feeding. The natural milk comprises of a reservoir of antibodies, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, all required to provide effective care while battling infections.

Prior research has reported that while 30% of babies with NEC can die, NEC survivors must deal with a lifetime of serious consequences like missing parts of their intestines or even submit to consistent intravenous nutrition. As NEC is prevalent among premature infants, reports have surmised underdeveloped intestines to be the prime suspect, as the slightest intestinal injury could cause a tear, providing the outlet for waste matter to escape to the blood stream.

The study’s leader, Mark Fey, PhD,said, “Our research suggests that without the NRG4 protein found in breast milk, a normal protection mechanism, for the immature gut may be missing. 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.”

In a series of tests observing rodent models, conducting in vitro analysis, and examining intestinal tissue of infants, experts discovered the NRG4 works by directly latching onto an intestinal receptor, ErbB4, to effectively combat inflammations resulting from intestinal damage.Mice that were administered a combination of the baby formula and NRG4 protein responded positively, receiving the anticipated protection against NEC.

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