The independent news organization of Duke University

Breast milk protects digestive systems

There is now one more reason to breast-feed, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center showed that breast milk promotes protective bacterial growth in infants’ digestive systems. The study, which was published in the August issue of the journal Current Nutrition & Food Science, compared the effects of infant formula, cow’s milk and breast milk on E. Coli growth. Whereas bacteria grown in the infant formula and cow’s milk did not form a protective barrier, the bacteria incubated in the breast milk stuck together to form biofilms that protect against illnesses and infection.

“The motivation behind this study is to help people understand that there is a big difference between infant formula and breast milk,” said William Parker, associate professor of surgery at Duke and senior author of the study. “If you can just mix bacteria in a test tube and see a fundamental difference, it is a telling sign.”

Although additional benefits have not yet been discovered, biofilms have been shown to promote the creation of a barrier for pathogens. A number of earlier studies have shown that biofilm may also play a role in metabolic function, Parker said.

According to the study, researchers attained the breast milk from anonymous donors via the Duke University Medical Center Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and infant formula samples came from three brands—Enfamil, Gerber and Similac.

The researchers also grew bacteria in purified samples of secretory immunoglobulin, an antibody found in breast milk that helps foster infants’ immune systems. The bacteria in SIgA produced mixed results, indicating that the antibody is not the sole factor in biofilm formation.

Ryan Lee, a sophomore at Harvard University and co-author of the study, said that the results of the research are important to the future of childhood nutrition.

“A lot of companies base their infant formulas on bovine milk, but it is different from breast milk,” Lee said. “I think a lot of companies will try to incorporate this ability to aggregate bacteria in their future formulas.”

The next step forward is to attempt to determine which molecules are involved in the formation of biofilms in breast milk. This research is essential to developing a more effective infant formula. For mothers who cannot breast-feed or do not have access to a milk bank, the next best alternative is to create a more effective infant formula, Parker noted.

“It’s important to find out what molecules are involved,” Parker said. “There is some data that we have on the SIgA antibody, but there must be something else in the breast milk that is causing the bacteria to form the biofilms.”


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