A team of researchers from Texas A & M University, University of Illinois, and Mead Johnson Nutrition have developed a new way to detect differences between formula-fed and breastfed infants. The scientists, led by Robert Chapkin of Texas A & M, have discovered a host of intestinal genes that are expressed differently in the two groups.
Very quickly after birth, infants have to ‘learn’ not to mount immune attacks against their food or their newly acquired intestinal flora, but to attack potentially deadly pathogens. For this reason, Chapkin and his team decided to see whether the type of food received by the babies had any affect on their intestinal development.
The researchers got the novel idea of collecting shed intestinal cells from infants’ diapers, and extracting mRNA from those cells. This, in turn, would tell the scientists exactly which proteins were being made and in what amounts. To this end, the mothers of 12 breastfed and 10 formula-fed infants collected fecal samples from their children at ages one, two and three months, and delivered the samples to the scientists for processing.
The difference between the two groups of children was striking. For example, breastfed newborns had far more of a protein involved in protecting them from necrotizing enterocolitis, a type of intestinal gangrene that causes about 650 deaths in the U.S. annually.
According to Sharon Donovan of the University of Illinois:
For the first time, we can see that breast milk induces genetic pathways that are quite different from those in formula-fed infants. Although formula makers have tried to develop a product that's as much like breast milk as possible, hundreds of genes were expressed differently in the breast-fed and formula-fed groups.