Breast milk may help protect preemies from developing sepsis

Breast milk may help protect preemies from developing sepsis

A component of breast milk may help protect premature babies from developing sepsis, a fast-moving, life-threatening condition triggered by infection. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., have found -- in newborn mice -- that a molecule called epidermal growth factor in breast milk activates receptors on intestinal cells to keep dangerous gut bacteria from migrating into the bloodstream, where such microbes can prompt sepsis. The researchers also found that breast milk with higher levels of this epidermal growth factor, especially from the earliest days of lactation following birth, is most effective in preventing dangerous bacteria from getting into the bloodstream. The findings are published March 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . Late-onset sepsis is a major problem in premature babies. These findings give us a better understanding of one of the scenarios that triggers sepsis, and a potential new tool to combat this condition." Rodney D. Newberry, MD, senior author, Washington University gastroenterologist and professor of medicine The study looked at late-onset sepsis, which strikes at least 72 hours after a baby is born and up to 60 days after birth and accounts for 26% of all deaths in infants born prematurely. About 10% of infants born preterm experience late-onset sepsis, and 30% to 50% of those who develop the infections die. Much of the focus on preventing late-onset sepsis relies on improving aseptic techniques, such as making sure a baby's skin is bacteria free and that intravenous lines and other life-saving tubes don't harbor potentially deadly bacteria. "The idea, initially, was that these infants became septic from their intravenous lines and that bacteria got into the blood through breaches in the skin," Newberry said. "That is true in some cases, but improving sterilization techniques hasn't eliminated these infections." Newberry and his former postdoctoral fellow, Kathryn A. Knoop, PhD, now an assistant professor of immunology at Mayo Clinic, were curious about whether gut bacteria play a role in sepsis that develops in newborns, particularly when such microbes migrate into the bloodstream. The culprits allowing the bacteria to move into the blood are intestinal cells called goblet cells. These cells secrete mucus to help prevent harmful bacteria from getting into the gut, but they also chaperone bacteria out of the gut, across the immature intestinal lining of a preemie. That scenario provides an entryway for sepsis-causing bacteria to gain access to the bloodstream. Related Stories



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