The immune boosting properties of breastmilk are unique to the individual

Not all babies get the same immune-boosting benefits from breastmilk, with each mother’s supply passing on a unique mix of antibodies, a new study reveals.

US medical researchers at the University of Pittsburgh analysed the antibody profiles of donated breast milk from two human milk research repositories in Pittburgh and San Diego, finding each individual’s breastmilk distinctive.

“Different women have led different lives, have different microbiomes and have encountered different infections, so it makes perfect sense that breast milk antibodies would reflect that variability,” says Dr Timothy Hand, a professor of paediatrics and immunology and author of the paper.

The study also shows the antibody profile of an individual’s breastmilk remains relatively stable over time, even across multiple pregnancies.

These findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

According to the researchers, the results might help explain why immunity varies among infants, and why some babies develop necrotising enterocolitis, a life-threatening gut disease. 

Necrotising enterocolitis mainly affects preterm babies, and is more common in formula fed than breast fed babies. 

An earlier study by the research team, published in Nature Medicine, shows specific maternal antibodies from breastmilk, known as immunoglobulin A, provide protection against the disease before a baby’s immune system develops. 

In addition to finding the antibody profile of breastmilk is unique to each individual, the study also shows when donor breastmilk is sterilised using pasteurisation, this process reduces antibody levels. 

Given donor breastmilk or formula can supplement or substitute for own mother’s milk in preterm babies, the researchers say further investigation is needed into the possibility of adding antibodies to substitute milk in order to boost immunity in babies.

For more on the science of breastfeeding, join the next Cosmos Science City even on 1 August 2023.

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