Digestion issues are not uncommon for infants because they are very new to the whole eating process after all. However, there are some times when digestion and intestinal issues can become deadly serious. When my cousin had twins they were both unlucky enough to have pyloric stenosis, which is when the muscles at the end of the stomach thicken and milk can’t pass through. They both had a short operation to fix the issue and within a week they were just fine. For preemies though, intestinal issues can be harder to fix, if they can even be fixed at all.

Necrotizing enterocolitis occurs about 10 days after birth for the preemies who develop the condition, and it means that the infant’s intestinal tissue is for some reason dying. The only option is to remove the dead tissue, but many infants don’t survive this procedure.

Dr. David Hackam, a Watson Family Professor of Surgery from Pitt School of Medicine, and co-director of the Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment Center at Children's Hospital, conducted a study to help develop a new way to treat NEC in hopes that more children would survive. He found that a certain immune protein, TLR4, is present in higher amounts inside the intestinal tract of a preemie versus a typical newborn. An abundance of TLR4 decreases blood flow due to a deficiency of nitric oxide, and all of this will start to kill intestinal tissue.

In previous studies, it was found that preemies who were exclusively breastfed were more likely to survive NEC, so Dr. Hackam studied the relationship between breastfeeding and NEC and found that breast milk has a high sodium content, which is converted into nitrate by stomach bacteria. After being turned into nitrate, it is converted into vasodilator nitric oxide, which can both protect the intestinal lining and improve blood flow.

Co-author and nitric oxide expert Dr. Mark Gladwin says that "the additional nitrite appears to overcome the effects of TLR4 activation and corrects the blood flow problem. When we gave formula supplemented with sodium nitrate and nitrite analog to the premature mice, we saw improved blood flow in the intestine, and NEC did not develop."

The compound used in the formula is already FDA approved for other uses. Currently Drs. Hackam and Gladwin are testing it further in other models of NEC to see if it could be added to formula and fed to premature infants to prevent NEC before it starts.

Source: University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences (2013, May 6). Breast milk ingredient could prevent a deadly intestinal problem in preemies. ScienceDaily.