Preterm infants - protection against necrotising enterocolitis and serious infections | Children's Charity

Preterm infants - protection against necrotising enterocolitis and serious infections

Project LeaderDr D L Smith BSc PhD MRSB
Project team
  • Dr J E Berrington FRCPCH MD BmedSci
  • Dr N D Embleton MD FRCPCH
  • Dr S H Bridge BSc MSc PhD MRSB
  • Dr A Nelson PhD
LocationApplied Sciences, University of Northumbria at Newcastle
Other locations
  • Neonatal Unit, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Duration2 years
Grant awarded30 July 2018
Provisional start date1 December 2018
Provisional end date30 November 2020
Grant amount£175,826.00
Grant codeGN2730

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Around 61,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year including approximately 10,000 who are born very prematurely before 32 weeks of pregnancy. Survival of the most preterm infants has increased over the last 20 years, but these babies remain at an increased risk of life-threatening complications. Late onset infections and serious bowel disease including necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) are now the most common complications in infants born very prematurely and together affect around 2,000 babies each year in the UK. Together, they are the commonest cause of death after the first week of life in preterm infants, and babies who do survive can experience impaired physical and intellectual development. The causes of NEC and late onset infections are not well understood, but both are thought to be linked to an ‘imbalance’ in the baby’s gut bacteria. Breast fed babies are less likely to develop these serious complications and this project will investigate how breast milk exerts its protective effects, and in particular, if it helps preterm infants develop a healthy range of gut bacteria.

The research project

Bacteriophages or phages are viruses that infect bacteria and are found in all places where bacteria exist. They are thought to play a part in shaping the bacterial population (microbiome) of the gut and may also boost immune defences in the lining of the gut. These researchers plan to investigate if phages in breast milk protect preterm infants from NEC and serious infections by stabilising bacterial communities in the gut and supporting babies’ inexperienced immune systems. They will: 1) use DNA sequencing to determine which phages are present in breast milk from mothers of preterm babies, 2) in the laboratory, study the effects of breast milk phages on the stool microbiome of both breast fed and formula fed infants and 3) look at how phages are carried in breast milk, as this has implications for how special care baby units handle and store breast milk. Better understanding of the causes of NEC and infections in preterm babies could help doctors identify babies most at risk of poor outcomes. In the longer term, this work could also highlight potential new treatment pathways including phage-based therapies to promote a healthy gut microbiome.

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