Baby breast feedingExperiments in mice have revealed how breast milk works to ward off the development of necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), a devastating intestinal disorder that affects 12 percent of premature babies and claims the lives of one in four of those who have it.

A team of scientists led by Johns Hopkins pediatric surgeon-in-chief David Hackam in the US, says if confirmed in human studies, the experiments could pave the way to new preventive approaches to stave off NEC in premature babies and spark the development of treatments for those who develop the condition.

Findings of the research, published April 22 in the journal Mucosal Immunology, reveal that a substance found in animal and human breast milk called epidermal growth factor, or EGF, blocks the activation of a protein responsible for unlocking the damaging immune cascade that culminates in NEC, a disease marked by the swift and irreversible death of intestinal tissue that remains one of the most-challenging-to-treat conditions.

“We have known for some time that breast milk can protect premature babies against intestinal damage but how and why it did so has been somewhat of a mystery,” says Hackam who initiated the study at the University of Pittsburgh and completed it at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “We believe that our findings solve a major piece of the mystery of this disorder.”

New therapies are acutely needed for NEC, the research team says, because current treatment is limited to surgical removal of the dying, or necrotizing, portions of a baby’s intestine. The approach halts further necrosis and can save a baby’s life, but it often leaves infants with insufficient intestine and puts them at risk for long-term complications, such as short bowel syndrome, which requires feeding support for life due to the intestines’ decreased ability to absorb enough nutrients. Pinpointing EGF as a key factor in NEC should offer new therapeutic targets that obviate or reduce the need for drastic surgery, the researchers say.