Human Milk Sugar Fights Against Group B Strep

Human Milk Sugar Fights Against Group B Strep

Human milk contains sugars that may protect against group B strep, which is a leading cause of severe infection in newborn babies. The scientists behind the discovery suggest that the sugars might also prevent biofilms, which are a particularly stubborn form of infection.

The study is the first to show that carbohydrates in human milk could work against biofilms, say the researchers, who are from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

If their findings are confirmed by further studies, the sugars might form part of antimicrobial treatments for babies and adults. They might also reduce reliance on some common antibiotics, says senior investigator Steven Townsend, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of chemistry.

The team recently presented the study at the American Chemical Society's 254th National Meeting & Exposition, held in Washington, D.C., and they reported it in the journal ACS Infectious Diseases.
Group B strep

Group B Streptococcus (group B strep) is a type of bacteria that is commonly found in the gut (including the stomach, intestines, and rectum) and genital tract without causing any symptoms. Occasionally, however, group B strep causes illness - especially when it infects the bloodstream and soft tissue.

In babies, group B strep infection can result in severe illnesses such as sepsis (infection in the blood), pneumonia (infection in the lungs), and meningitis (infection of the fluid and lining of the brain and spinal cord).

There are two main types of group B strep disease in babies: those that occur during the first week of life (termed early-onset) and those that occur between that period and age 3 months (late-onset).

In the United States, there are around 26,500 severe cases of group B strep infection every year in all age groups.

The rate of early-onset infection in babies has fallen dramatically since "active surveillance" began in the mid-1990s; between 1993 and 2014, the rate fell from 17 to 0.24 cases per 1,000 live births.

In their study report, the researchers explain that group B strep can infect the fetal membranes during pregnancy. Another route of infection from the mother is thought to be from the vagina during childbirth.

"In most women, the group B strep that is present will not cause illness," notes Prof. Townsend.

"But for newborn babies," he explains that infection by group B strep "often leads to sepsis or pneumonia, and in severe cases death, because they don't have fully developed defense mechanisms."

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