Immune Cell-Mediated Protection of the MammaryGland and the Infant during Breastfeeding1-4

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Abstract

Breastfeeding has been regarded first and foremost as a means of nutrition for infants, providing essential components for their unique growth and developmental requirements. However, breast milk is also rich in immunologic factors, highlighting its importance as a mediator of protection. In accordance with its evolutionary origin, the mammary gland offers via the breastfeeding route continuation of the maternal to infant immunologic support established in utero. At birth, the infant's immune system is immature, and although it was exposed to the maternal microbial flora during pregnancy, it experiences an abrupt change in its microbial environment during and after birth, which is challenging and renders the infant highly susceptible to infection. Active and passive immunity protects the infant via breast milk, which is rich in immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lysozyme, cytokines, and numerous other immunologic factors, including maternal leukocytes. Breast milk leukocytes provide active immunity and promote development of immunocompetence in the infant. Additionally, it has been speculated that they play a role in the protection of the mammary gland from infection. Leukocytes are thought to exert these functions via phagocytosis, secretion of antimicrobial factors and/or antigen presentation in both the mammary gland and the gastrointestinal tract of the infant, and also in other infant tissues, where they are transported via the systemic circulation. Recently, it has been demonstrated that breast milk leukocytes respond dynamically to maternal as well as infant infections, and are fewer in nonexclusively compared with exclusively breastfeeding dyads, further emphasizing their importance for both the mother and infant. This review summarizes the current knowledge of human milk leukocytes and factors influencing them, and presents recent novel findings supporting their potential as a diagnostic marker for infections of the lactating breast and of the breastfed infant.

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