Breast milk protein cuts preemie NICU infections

A protein in breast milk offers a safe and efficient way to reduce infections in babies in hospital neonatal intensive care units, new research shows.

“The majority of diseases affecting newborn preemies are hospital-acquired infections such as meningitis, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections,” says Michael Sherman, professor emeritus in the child health department at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

“Not only did we find that lactoferrin, a protein found in breast milk, could reduce hospital infections among preemies, but we also measured the safety of feeding the protein to newborns.”

For a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers conducted a randomized control trial with premature infants weighing between 1 pound, 10 ounces, and 3 pounds, 4 ounces, at birth. Sixty of the infants were fed lactoferrin through a feeding tube twice a day for 28 days, while 60 additional infants were given a placebo. The rate of hospital-acquired infections was 50 percent lower among the infants fed lactoferrin.

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In addition, researchers used MedDRA, a system that reports safety outcomes to the US Food and Drug Administration, to evaluate the safety of lactoferrin during and after the infants received the protein. Infants were examined for adverse effects from the protein six and 12 months after the trial ended.

Sherman says all adverse effects identified were associated with complications from preterm birth and not lactoferrin.

“While a large-scale clinical trial is needed before lactoferrin becomes a standard treatment protocol in NICUs, our results show the safety of lactoferrin and provide an initial report of efficiency related to reducing hospital-acquired infections,” Sherman says.

Lactoferrin can cost an estimated $25 to $500 per dose, but a previous study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that hospital-acquired infections cost $9.8 billion to treat each year.

In previous research, Sherman and his colleagues found that lactoferrin helped protect premature infants from a type of staph infection known as Staphylococcus epidermidis.

The National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: University of Missouri

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Source: Futurity