Can concentrated mother’s milk help to prevent NEC?

Written by Beth Schinkel, a NICU nurse and Registered Dietitian.

My first experience with necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) was early in my nursing career. I took care of a preemie in the NICU who seemed to be thriving. One night during my shift, he developed NEC and tragically passed away hours later. This infant continues to remind me of just how precious every moment is for babies and their families. I often think of him and other babies like him. My passion for helping babies has led me, with other neonatal nutrition researchers, to search for ways to improve nutrition for NICU babies and to help prevent NEC.

My first career was in clinical nutrition, however I was drawn to more direct patient care so I went back to school and became a NICU nurse. My background made me recognize that the nutrition options for NICU babies are not ideal. After witnessing the devastation of NEC affect my patients and their families, I felt compelled to use my expertise to help improve nutrition options for infants at risk of NEC. I was fortunate to meet Elizabeth Nelson, an experienced medical device engineer who could bring my concept to improve nutrition into reality.

Beth Schinkel and Elizabeth Nelson at the NEC Symposium

We know that mother’s own milk provides vulnerable infants with the most protection against NEC. With this concept as our foundation, Elizabeth Nelson and I have worked with a team to build a Human Milk Concentration (HMC) device based on a simple concept: remove a percentage of water via a single direction osmosis so that concentrated mother’s own milk (or pasteurized donor milk) can be fed to a preterm baby, which could potentially reduce the need to add fortifiers and avoids potentially damaging the milk with heat or pressure.

We recently published our grant funded 2018 research in the Journal of Perinatology that demonstrated our single use, point of care device can successfully concentrate human milk. Our 2019/2020 follow up studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research Program. These follow up studies investigated the impact of the device on additional human milk components that are important for neonatal growth and protection against NEC. We studied important breast milk components concentrated by our device including bioactives such as lactoferrin and IgA. We also measured osmolality, fatty acids, human milk enzymes, and human milk oligosaccharides.

The HMC device is still in a pre-market, research stage though we are fortunate to collaborate with excellent teaching hospital based neonatal research experts to investigate potential benefits as we simultaneously work toward FDA release to market and clinical studies.

The Mother’s Milk is Best team are proud to do what we can to help the NEC Society build a world without necrotizing enterocolitis!

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