Human milk (HM) is understood to be the best source of nutrition for newborn babies; in part due to its nutritional benefits, but also because human milk contains important digestive enzymes, oligosaccharides, immunological and anti-inflammatory factors, antioxidants, growth factors and hormones that all contribute to an infant’s overall long-term health. We have recently embarked on a project to collect and analyze HM, in order to more clearly understand the specific ways that exposure to a mother’s own milk (MOM) can improve outcomes for premature infants.
At the moment, we are developing and optimizing novel assays to measure total protein glycosylation in HM. These lectin-based microplate assays will allow us to correlate human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) to clinical outcomes in neonates. More broadly, we’d like to understand if protein glycosylation and/or HMO levels can be used as a marker of neonatal gastrointestinal conditions that are common among premature infants, such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). We’ve established a HM biobank, which is particularly valuable for clinical correlation studies, because 1) a significant percentage of the existing samples were collected within the first 48 hours after infants were admitted to the NICU and many HM samples are considered colostrum; 2) longitudinal samples were collected from donors, in some cases out to several months post-delivery. Collection of HM samples and the associated clinical data is an on-going effort.