New study investigating how breastmilk protects premature babies from NEC

Updated: Apr 21


NEC and other infections in premature infants are linked to imbalances in the microorganisms inside the baby’s gut – the microbiome. Breast milk is known to reduce the risk of NEC, with evidence suggesting that this is due to immune-boosting factors.


Now, researchers at Northumbria University, Newcastle funded by Action Medical Research are starting work looking closely at the components of breastmilk to find out more about their protective effects.


Dr Darren Smith and his team will study certain types of viruses within breast milk: ‘Developing a better understanding of what components of breast milk provide these protective effects and how they work could lead to new ways to prevent or treat these complex, life-threatening illnesses. We will investigate if viruses – known as phages – in breast milk play a part in protecting very preterm babies.”


The first task is to carry out a detailed analysis of the phages in breast milk from the mothers of very preterm babies. The team will then investigate the influence of breast milk phages on the guts of babies. The team will use samples from the Great North Neonatal Biobank, a collaboration between Newcastle University and Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, led by consultant neonatologist Dr Janet Berrington.


Dr Berrington. “Our work could shed new light on how we might help protect preterm babies from NEC leading to improvements in neonatal care and treatment,”


Director of Research at Action Medical Research Dr Tracy Swinfield, comments: “Action Medical Research is delighted to be able to fund this inspiring new research which aims to find out more about how breastmilk could protect tiny, vulnerable babies from infections such as NEC, which can have such tragic consequences for families. We are proud to support Dr Smith and his colleagues as they carry out this vital work.”


Phage team left to right Prof Nicholas Embleton, Dr Darren Smith, Dr Andrew Nelson, Dr Janet Berrington and Dr Wen Chyin Yew