Can the Newly Identified Lipid in Breast Milk Reduce Infant Cerebral Palsy?
Can the Newly Identified Lipid in Breast Milk Reduce Infant Cerebral Palsy?

A Research Finds New Lipid in Breast Milk Could Reduce Incidence of Cerebral Palsy in Infants.Though it is known that a loss of white matter in the brain leads to neurological deficits, there are currently no medications available to prevent this outcome in newborns. However, researchers at Duke Health have made a significant discovery through experiments using neonatal mice. They have identified a fatty molecule present in breast milk that triggers a process wherein brain stem cells generate new white matter, effectively reversing the damage.

The study, published on August 3 in the journal Cell Stem Cell, was spearheaded by Eric Benner, M.D., Ph.D., a distinguished assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine. While Benner acknowledges the need for further clinical trials, he finds the finding promising. "Developing therapies for children—especially those who are medically fragile—is very challenging due to valid safety concerns," Benner explained. "But the fact that this molecule already exists in something as safe as breast milk for premature babies is extremely encouraging."

He further elaborated, "We've known that fats in breast milk contribute to a child's brain development, but there are various types of fats present. This study specifically identifies a lipid molecule that promotes white matter development. With this knowledge, we can now begin developing a therapy that safely delivers this lipid to address the unique challenges faced by these infants."

Benner, who is also a neonatologist at Duke University and co-founder of Tellus Therapeutics—a Duke spinout company established in collaboration with the Duke University Office for Translation & Commercialization—aims to bring this therapy from the lab to the neonatal intensive care unit.

The next step involves administering the identified fatty molecule intravenously to patients in an upcoming clinical trial. This is crucial, as many infants within this vulnerable population also suffer from gastrointestinal issues, making oral administration of milk or medication unsafe. The lipid molecule, upon entering the brain, binds with stem cells and encourages them to produce a type of cell called oligodendrocytes.

These oligodendrocytes play a pivotal role in the production of white matter in the central nervous system. By introducing newly produced white matter in pre-term infants, the neurological damage that would otherwise hinder the child's ability to move (characteristic of cerebral palsy)is prevented. "The timing of brain injury is extremely difficult to predict, thus a treatment that could be safely given to all preterm babies at risk would be revolutionary," stated Agnes Chao, M.D., a former fellow in the Division of Neonatology and the paper's first author.

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