August 11, 2021

Martin and Sims secure R21 to study potential NEC treatment

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Drs. Colin Martin and Brian SimsThe National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced it will fund the research of Colin Martin, M.D., FACS, associate professor in the Division of Pediatric Surgery and Brian Sims, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Neonatology.

Martin and Sims will serve as the co-principal investigators on the project, “The Therapeutic Potential of Pasteurized Human Donor Breast Milk Exosomes.” The two-year grant totals more than $400,000.

Martin and Sims are proposing a potential treatment to a devastating disease known as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). NEC is the leading cause of intestinal mortality in newborns and is characterized by intestinal epithelial cell injury or death and systemic inflammation.

In higher stages of NEC, infants have a poor prognosis and outcome. Unfortunately, there is no present therapy for these at-risk infants that targets systemic inflammation and oxidative stress injury in the gut and brain.

Martin and Sims believe that the answer to NEC might be found on a molecular level in breast milk. In fact, according to UNICEF research, formula-fed infants were six to 10 times more likely to develop NEC than those who received breast milk.

Neonate patientAccording to Martin and Sims, early breast milk administration is protective in neonates and promotes immune development in the gut. They have found that a component of breast milk, human breast milk-derived exosomes (HBMDE), is directly responsible for infants’ protection against intestinal epithelial cell death, thus preventing NEC.

Exosomes are small, naturally occurring nanovesicles that facilitate cellular communication.  Exosomes are now being viewed as potential therapeutic agents in multiple organ systems.

Although preliminary results are promising, not all premature infants have access to the therapeutic benefit of their own mother’s breast milk. These mothers may turn to breast milk banks, but donor milk has been pasteurized to be pathogen-free.

Recent evidence suggest that exosomes are present in pasteurized donor milk, but it is not known if they have the same therapeutic benefit and immune profile of non-pasteurized fresh human milk exosomes.

This is where Martin and Sims come in. Using the R21 funding, they will study the immunogenic and therapeutic properties of HBMDE, to answer the question of pasteurized vs. non-pasteurized milk and its ability to prepare infants to fight NEC.

Sims is pleased to kick off the research.

“Dr. Martin and I spend many nights dealing with the devastating effects of necrotizing enterocolitis on premature infants,” said Sims. “Understanding this process could give us a better understanding into protective pathways. We will also determine which maternal factors are important in this process. We are very excited about the potential impact of this work.”

Martin looks forward to the researches potential impact on patients.

“NEC is a very debilitating disease,” said Martin. “But, this research not only gives providers hope, it also gives our patients hope in preventing and treating this disease in the future.”