Investigators have found that a protein found in breast milk may help protect premature infants from a potentially lethal gastrointestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles found the protein called neuregulin-4 (NRG4), which is present in breast milk but absent in formula, may be protective against the intestinal destruction caused by NEC.

“Our research suggests that without the NRG4 protein found in breast milk, a normal protection mechanism for the immature gut may be missing,” said Mark R. Frey, the study’s principal investigator at The Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

The study was conducted using rodent models, as well as in vitro analysis and examination of human breast milk and infant intestinal tissue. Researchers found that formula-fed rats developed a condition similar to NEC, but those given formula plus NRG4 were protected against intestinal damage.

The results suggest that NRG4 binds specifically with a receptor found in the intestine to block inflammatory intestinal damage.

“If a baby on formula encounters an NEC trigger such as intestinal infection or injury, he or she may be at increased risk for a life-threatening condition,” Frey said.

NEC is characterized by a loss of intestinal cells called Paneth cells, located throughout the small intestine, that protect the organ from microbial damage. In a mouse model of NEC, researchers found that NRG4 prevented the loss of Paneth cells.

Thirty percent of infants with NEC die from the disease, with survivors facing lifelong consequences that may lead to removal of part of their intestine and dependence upon intravenous nutrition.

“Given that NEC is a significant clinical problem without an effective treatment, we plan to evaluate NRG4 for its therapeutic potential in this disease,” Frey said.