Intestinal Barrier Maturation in Very Low Birthweight Infants: Relationship to Feeding and Antibiotic Exposure

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To test the hypothesis that feeding and antibiotic exposures affect intestinal barrier maturation in preterm infants, we serially measured intestinal permeability (IP) biomarkers in infants <33 weeks gestation (gestational age [GA]) during the first 2 weeks of life.

Study design

Eligible infants <33 weeks GA were enrolled within 4 days of birth in a prospective study of IP biomarkers (NCT01756040). Study participants received the nonmetabolized sugars lactulose/rhamnose enterally on study days 1, 8, and 15 and lactulose/rhamnose were measured in urine by high-performance liquid chromatography. Serum zonulin and fecal alpha-1-anti-trypsin, 2 other IP markers, were measured by semiquantitative Western blot and ELISA, respectively.


In a cohort of 43 subjects, the lactulose/rhamnose ratio was increased on day 1 and decreased over 2 weeks, but remained higher in infants born at ≤28 weeks of gestation compared with IP in infants born at >28 weeks of gestation. Exclusive breastmilk feeding was associated with more rapid maturation in intestinal barrier function. A cluster analysis of 35 subjects who had urine samples from all time points revealed 3 IP patterns (cluster 1, normal maturation: n = 20 [57%]); cluster 2, decreased IP during the first week and subsequent substantial increase: n = 5 [14%]); and cluster 3, delayed maturation: n = 10 [29%]). There were trends toward more prolonged antibiotic exposure (P = .092) and delayed initiation of feeding ≥4 days (P = .064) in infants with abnormal IP patterns.


Intestinal barrier maturation in preterm infants is GA and postnatal age dependent, and is influenced by feeding with a maturational effect of breastmilk feeding and possibly by antibiotic exposures.

Trial registration NCT01756040.

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