Human milk oligosaccharide composition predicts risk of necrotising enterocolitis in preterm infants

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Abstract

Objective

Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is one of the most common and often fatal intestinal disorders in preterm infants. Markers to identify at-risk infants as well as therapies to prevent and treat NEC are limited and urgently needed. NEC incidence is significantly lower in breast-fed compared with formula-fed infants. Infant formula lacks human milk oligosaccharides (HMO), such as disialyllacto-N-tetraose (DSLNT), which prevents NEC in neonatal rats. However, it is unknown if DSLNT also protects human preterm infants.

Design

We conducted a multicentre clinical cohort study and recruited 200 mothers and their very low birthweight infants that were predominantly human milk-fed. We analysed HMO composition in breast milk fed to infants over the first 28 days post partum, matched each NEC case with five controls and used logistic regression and generalised estimating equation to test the hypothesis that infants who develop NEC receive milk with less DSLNT than infants who do not develop NEC.

Results

Eight infants in the cohort developed NEC (Bell stage 2 or 3). DSLNT concentrations were significantly lower in almost all milk samples in NEC cases compared with controls, and its abundance could identify NEC cases prior to onset. Aggregate assessment of DSLNT over multiple days enhanced the separation of NEC cases and control subjects.

Conclusions

DSLNT content in breast milk is a potential non-invasive marker to identify infants at risk of developing NEC, and screen high-risk donor milk. In addition, DSLNT could serve as a natural template to develop novel therapeutics against this devastating disorder.

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