Got milk; need answers: New research looks at breast milk in asthma prevention

By Marketa Stastna on 2016-05-03

Imagine a nutritional food source that gives your baby exactly what she needs, when she needs it. Breast milk is just that. It provides your baby with nutrients, helps fight off infections and changes as the baby’s needs change. And yet, it might have even more benefits than that. Dr. Meghan Azad is a Winnipeg-based researcher and a recipient of Canadian Respiratory Research Network ERLI award, who is committed to learning just what other super powers this nourishment holds.

“We’re looking at how breast milk potentially protects babies from developing asthma,” she explains, adding “So far, we’re seeing early signs that breast feeding can reduce the risk of wheezing during the first year of life.” And while she admits there is no cure for asthma, she’s hopeful that there might be a way to prevent it in some instances.

Dr. Azad’s particular arm of research is a part of a much larger study – The Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Study (CHILD) – a five-year national study with 3,500 moms and their respective 3,500 children as well as 2,600 dads. Each of the families has participated in the study since the mother’s pregnancy. Dr. Azad is one of 40 researchers Canada-wide who are actively participating in the study. This dream team of researchers includes a wide array of expertise, ranging from nutrition to pediatrics. The goal of the study is to “provide a greater understanding of the root causes of allergy and asthma including genetic and environmental triggers and the ways in which they interact.”

Dr. Azad’s focus is on breast milk. She and her team at the University of Manitoba, including collaborator and microbiome scientist, Dr. Ehsan Khafipour, want to know whether there are particular “good bacteria” in breast milk that can prevent asthma and if so, how can she ensure that mothers have those particular bacteria.

In order to find the answers, she goes right to the source: samples of breast milk from the 3,500 mothers. While the composition of breast milk is highly variable and depends on the mother’s genetics, lifestyle and diet, all samples do have one thing in common.

All healthy women produce milk containing live bacteria. These milk microbes help shape the baby’s gut flora, which is important for the development of the baby’s immune system.

“We’re hoping to learn about these microbes in breast milk and ultimately give recommendations to moms to help them prevent asthma in their children. “

Plainly put – Dr. Azad is learning about the type of bacteria that can prevent asthma and then further comparing the presence of those particular bacteria to the mother’s lifestyle, diet and environment to see which conditions favour these health-promoting microbes. This approach is quite new, as up until recently breast milk was assumed to be sterile.

“It’s this exploding domain of research that seems to be important for everything.”

As she sums up, this kind of invaluable information could also guide further development of baby formula, so that mothers who are don’t breastfeed can have healthier options for their babies.

Dr. Azad is a Research Scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. The CHILD Study is supported by the AllerGen Network and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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