Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Breast milk offers food for research


Children's Hospital studies try to discover what chemical and genetic components give it so many preventive qualities

By Peggy O'Farrell / The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Emily Hinshaw of Edgewood breast-feeds 16-month-old Evan. "There's so many (health) benefits, and also, there's that emotional connection."
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
Experts, including mothers, agree: Breast milk is best for babies.

Now researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center are studying specific chemical and genetic components in breast milk that help keep babies healthy.

The initiative includes a study grant from the National Institutes of Health and plans to set up a milk bank to aid research around the country.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children's hope the work will help identify babies at risk for various ailments. Their findings could one day lead to supplements of specific milk compounds to help fight disease in children and adults.

Dr. Ardythe L. Morrow, who is heading up the human milk research initiative at Cincinnati Children's, says it's time to stop thinking of breast milk as only a food source.

"It's really an immunoprotective agent that's also a nutritional substance," Morrow says.

There's already evidence that babies who are breast-fed are less prone to certain infections and infectious diseases, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, allergies, some cancers and insulin-dependent diabetes.

That's what convinced Emily Hinshaw, 31, of Edgewood to breast-feed son Evan.

"I know that nutritionally, breast milk is excellent. I know that it provides antibodies to prevent illness. I know it decreases my odds of getting breast cancer, and if I had a daughter, it would decrease her odds of getting it," Hinshaw says. "There's so many benefits, and also, there's that emotional connection."

MILK RESEARCH RARE
Research on human milk is still fairly rare. The milk bank that Dr. Ardythe L. Morrow , and her colleagues plan to establish will be almost as rare.

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America lists seven milk banks in the United States. In a few communities, hospitals and mothers rely on banked breast milk to help very sick babies.

"The milk banks are amazing resources. I hope one day we see them everywhere," says Karen Gromada, a certified lactation consultant and LaLeche League group leader and author of Mothering Multiples: Breastfeeding and Caring for Twins or More (LaLeche League International; $14.95).

Banked milk is issued by prescription, and it's expensive - $50 a unit in some cases. Few health plans cover the cost of banked milk or breastfeeding education and supplies, Gromada says. "There's definitely a gap in services."

UC study focuses on infection-fighting sugars

Researchers don't fully understand the role that breast milk plays in helping an infant's immune system develop, but they do know that mothers and babies trade antibodies - proteins manufactured by the immune system to protect against specific bacteria, viruses and toxins - throughout the breast-feeding cycle.

While the practice of breast-feeding has gone in and out of fashion in the last century or so, now science is supporting what has always been nature's way of keeping babies fed and healthy.

Doing what's natural

Dr. Barbara Warner, a neonatologist at Cincinnati Children's and clinical director of TriHealth's nurseries, sees the irony in science finally focusing on what people have taken for granted for millennia: Breast milk's health benefits.

"Mother Nature's a lot smarter than we are," Warner says.

Breast milk is the best option for all babies, but it's especially important for premature infants, Warner says.

Preemies are especially vulnerable to infection, and breast milk's immunoprotective properties are crucial, she says.

It's easier for babies to digest breast milk, a plus for preemies, who don't often tolerate feeding.

On Saturday, Morrow presented the first human study on the role of oligosaccharides - complex sugars found in breast milk - in protecting infants against common diarrhea infections. The study was presented at a meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Seattle.

Environmental hazards

Oligosaccharides have great potential for protecting babies and adults against disease.

Environment plays a big role in the types of diseases people are likely to face. If a baby genetically vulnerable to cholera, for example, is born in Cincinnati, there's little reason to worry: In the unlikely event that an outbreak occurred, hospitals are well-prepared to provide supportive care.

"But if that baby's born in Bangladesh, you've got a problem," Morrow says.

If researchers can learn which oligosaccharides protect against which diseases, they might be able to synthesize those compounds into supplements to protect people against those ailments.

"We're talking about kids who are going into day care for the first month or two, people who are going on cruise ships or people who are going into nursing homes who are at risk for infection," she says.

Will need research subjects

This summer, Cincinnati Children's will begin recruiting mothers and babies in a long-term study on the effects of breast-feeding on the immune system.

Morrow is the principal investigator of an ongoing National Institutes of Health (NIH) project studying specific components and clinical applications for human milk. Cincinnati Children's will host the project for the next five years as Morrow and her colleagues, along with researchers in Mexico and Massachusetts, study oligosaccharides.

To encourage more studies, Morrow and her colleagues plan to establish a breast milk bank with samples to be shared with researchers around the country.

"This research is still so new that we don't always know the best method for detecting or measuring substances in human milk, or even whether a substance is in there," she says.



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