Scientists have taken a closer look at breast milk. New moms and moms-to-be, you may want to give breastfeeding a shot after you read this…

Research has uncovered a SWAT team of immune cells, called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs), in human breast milk.

In the short term, ILCs in breast milk may help protect newborns from infection. In the longer term, it helps babies develop their own protective immune system.

“We were looking for the source which can provide immune protection to the baby while it develops its own immune system,” says Dr Jack Yu, chief of pediatric plastic surgery at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University (AU).

“We think these cells help provide frontline immune protection for the baby,” says Dr Jatinder Bhatia, chief of the Section of Neonatology and vice chair of clinical research in the MCG Department of Pediatrics.

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“These cells are upstream of the immune response… we know they can initiate and advance an immune response,” adds Dr Babak Baban, an immunologist in the Department of Oral Biology in the Dental College of Georgia at AU and in the MCG Department of Surgery.

“We think these cells help provide frontline immune protection for the baby” – Dr Jatinder Bhatia

Breast milk for gut health

They found all three known classes of ILCs present in fresh human mother’s milk – type 1 is the most prevalent. Parallel mouse studies show that the cells are not only transferred to a baby by nursing but that they survive in the baby’s gut for at least several days.

“The moment you are born, you start to build a microbiome,” Yu says. Their preliminary findings, including the parallel mouse studies, indicate that ILCs are a player in the construction.

ILC3s definitely have a role, Baban says of this ILC type that helps form the protective mucosal layer for the gut and respond to the microbiome when it does develop.

Related: Breastfeeding for beginners (useful tips for new moms)

Breast milk protects mom too

The researchers think the ILCs in the breast milk may also be a way to protect mom from getting an infection from the suckling baby.

Related: Benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby

Breast milk changes to help a sick baby

The cells may even be part of the dynamic that enables the content of breast milk to change to help the baby get over that infection.

“There is a feedback loop,” says Yu. It’s known that some immune cells like leucocytes, another white blood cell that fights infection, increase in the milk in response to an infection in the baby. The researchers still don’t know if the newly found ILCs do the same but suspect that ILCs are part of the cue to the mom that something is amiss with her baby.

Scientists have only been studying ILCs for about a decade, and they have been found to be important in inflammation, immunity and tissue homeostasis.

Source: Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University via ScienceDaily

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