The immune-boosting properties of breast milk have long been known and experiments in mice are beginning to show another way how. A team of scientists led by Johns Hopkins pediatric surgeon-in-chief David Hackam, M.D., Ph.D., says their experiments reveal how breast milk works to ward off the development of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a devastating intestinal disorder that affects 12 percent of premature babies and claims the lives of one in four of those who have it.

If affirmed in human studies, the experiments could pave the way to new preventive approaches to stave off NEC in premature babies and spark the development of treatments for those who develop the condition.

Findings of the research reveal that a substance found in animal and human breast milk called epidermal growth factor, or EGF, blocks the activation of a protein responsible for unlocking the damaging immune cascade that culminates in NEC, a disease marked by the swift and irreversible death of intestinal tissue that remains one of the most-challenging-to-treat conditions.

Published in the journal Mucosal Immunology, Other investigators on the research included Chhinder Sodhi, Hongpeng Jia, Yukihiro Yamaguchi and Thomas Prindle of Johns Hopkins; and Charlotte Egan, Amin Afrazi, Peng Lu, Maria Branca, Congrong Ma, Samantha Mielo, Anthony Pompa, Zerina Hodzic, and John Ozolek of the University of Pittsburgh. The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers R01GM078238, R01DK083752 and K08DK101608.