UC Davis neonatologist Mark Underwood is searching for ways to prevent a potentially deadly intestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) from occurring. The disease often strikes babies born too early.
"For premature infants, necrotizing enterocolitis is a common, devastating condition, and we have very limited options for treating it," says Underwood, assistant clinical professor of neonatology.
No one knows what exactly causes NEC, though physicians believe the intestine's inflammatory response is triggered by an imbalance in gut bacteria. So, Underwood has designed a clinical trial aimed at creating that healthy bacterial balance. The trial will determine the best mixture of pre- and probiotic supplements to give to premature infants to prevent NEC.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in various foods. Common strains include the Lactobacillis and Bifidobacterium families of bacteria. Prebiotics are nondigestible foods that make their way through the digestive system and help good bacteria grow and flourish.
Underwood recommends that mothers of premature infants breastfeed (or pump their milk for NICU staff use to feed the babies). Studies have shown that pre-term infants are less likely to develop NEC and the life-threatening intestinal perforations associated with it if they have previously been fed breast milk.
"When we are talking life or death, even a few percentage points matter," Underwood says.
Still, breast milk does not completely prevent NEC from developing in the first place.
That may be, Underwood says, because mother's milk is designed for term babies and may not have the healthiest percentage of prebiotics to support growth of healthy bacteria in pre-term babies' intestines prone to developing NEC.
"It would be wonderful to be able to find a way to prevent this debilitating disease in infants and we believe that pre- and probiotics are a safe and effective way to do that."