Real-Life Solutions: Helping Premature Infants Fight Off Infections


By: Natalie Telis

Premature infant births have been on the rise in the last few decades, increasing 36% since the 1980s, with 12.8 percent of children in the United States born premature, which is defined as less than 37 weeks gestational age. Infants who are born premature are at risk for a number of physiological and neurological problems in life; the risk of temporary developmental delays, as well as lasting disabilities like cerebral palsy, is elevated in premature infants. With premature births on the rise, the care and preservation of premature infant health is an important area of medical research today. 

One disease whose risk is elevated by premature birth is infection and inflammation of the intestine, or necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). In severe cases, the inflammation can be deadly. Infants with heart disease, infants who are formula fed, and infants born prematurely are at an increased risk of developing NEC.

Dr. Mark Underwood, a clinician and professor at the UC Davis Medical Center, and a researcher of the Children’s Health, Functional Glycobiology, and Milk Bioactives Programs of the Foods for Health Institute, notes sadly that the percentages of infants affected by NEC has not changed during the last few decades. Traditional antibiotic treatments have not improved in efficacy, but probiotic supplementation appears to increase beneficial outcomes. Investigating new treatment strategies like pre and probiotic supplementation is a key focus of Dr. Underwood’s work in collaboration with his colleagues at the Foods For Health Institute, including Dr. Bruce German, Dr. David Mills, and Dr. Carlito Lebrilla.

Dr. Underwood’s current work includes a large clinical trial in children diagnosed with NEC. In collaboration with Dr. Mills and Dr. Lebrilla, he has been assaying stool, urine, and saliva samples from premature infants who are supplemented with pre and probiotics, aimed at discovering effective treatments to prevent and treat intestinal infection and inflammation. The goal of this research is to understand the development of gut microflora and how to influence it; since probiotics increase both the health of NEC patients and enrich certain microbiota, it is likely that this research will lead to greater improvement in NEC treatment.

Ultimately, the benefits of understanding microbiota modulation are not only applicable to infants – sufferers of other diseases, such as Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (e.g. Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis), can also benefit from supplementation designed to change gut microflora composition. “Data already show that probiotics work,” says Dr. Underwood; the next step is discovering the precise mechanisms of their function, so that their benefits can be precisely quantified and applied to  the elderly, hospitalized patients, immuno-compromised patients, patients with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and other at-risk individuals.