Messy diapers help show nutrition needs for premature, full-term babies

April 15, 2014 by Kathleen Phillips, Texas A&M University
Dr. Robert Chapkin, Texas A&M AgriLife Research nutrition scientist and a distinguished professor at Texas A&M University. Credit: Texas A&M AgriLIfe Research/Kathleen Phillips

A study that began with messy diapers is helping scientists understand how nutrition helps babies grow into healthy children, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research nutritionist.

Because scientists cannot physically examine the infant intestines, a team of U.S. researchers analyzed fecal samples from several groups of infants – from premature to full-term – to get a molecular "fingerprint" on how they were developing in relation to breast milk or formula consumption.

"This study is a proof-of-principle that we can noninvasively monitor the biology of the intestine and the in these highly and full-term infants in order to unravel the developmental processes that are just fine in the healthy babies, but in the , are not going along very well," said Dr. Robert Chapkin, a principle in the study at AgriLife Research and a distinguished professor at Texas A&M University.

He said the purpose of such information would be to optimize treatments given to help babies.

"After all, every mother and father want the healthiest baby possible. They want a baby that thrives. They all want brilliant babies," he said. "A lot of these developmental processes impact neural development and other components. We know enough about biology now that if there are serious disruptions in the early developmental process, they can have impact for the entire life of that human."

Noninvasive diagnostics is a concept Chapkin and the team have been fine-tuning for more than a decade.

"We developed the first generation of this technique 15 years ago to allow us to look inside the intestine of newborn human babies," Chapkin said. "Newborn babies have all kinds of complications either because of premature birth or shortly after birth they develop digestive problems.

"The intestine is also very important because at the time of birth, it is a point where the human body becomes populated with microbes," he said. "Prior to that, the baby's intestine is almost sterile."

The food taken in by the baby drives the populations of microbes that begin to flourish in the body as a part of what Chapkin called "normal biology that has been operating in humans for thousands of years."

A new factor, however, entered about 40 years ago when infant formula was introduced to the market, he said.

"So then there became the question as to whether formula is optimal nutrition, or does a baby that is breast-fed have an advantage?" Chapkin said, a notion that is debated among formula manufacturers and nutritionists.

But Chapkin said the larger question is, "how do you characterize the impact of nutrition on a ?

"Newborn babies, especially if they're healthy, can't readily be biopsied and it's hard to even get blood samples," he said. "So that was really a part of our goal—to develop a noninvasive technique for assessing the biology of the human intestine – the site of microbial development because of the evolution of the growth process in babies."

He explained that a baby's immune system rapidly develops immediately following birth, and the intestine is a central reservoir of immune cell learning and development. If the immune system is too active, the baby develops inflammatory conditions—conditions that can actually harm the baby. If the immune system is not active, the baby could become very susceptible to infection.

"All of these threaten the viability of the children," Chapkin said.

With a team of experts from around the U.S., the researchers looked at highly premature babies in neonatal intensive care units and at two sets of healthy, full-term babies – one set fed exclusively breast milk and the other formula for the first three months of their lives. Fecal samples from all of the babies were analyzed.

"So with this diverse range of babies, we used our non-invasive diagnostic which isolates genetic material from the cells that are actually passed out in the fecal stream," Chapkin said. "We capture the RNA, or ribonucleic acid, from those cells and do 'deep sequencing,' which means we sequenced the signature of the RNAs in that material."

That enabled the scientists to "pull that signature out and analyze it," he said. "We then took the data set and asked what genes are there, what are these babies' intestines actually producing in terms of gene expression. The whole idea is we can take these genes and use them basically like a map – a constellation – in order to determine how the baby's biology is changing over time.

"Nobody has done this before because it is difficult to gain access to a baby's intestine," Chapkin added. "With our method, we could sample a baby's intestine everyday if we want because all we need is a stool sample."

Chapkin credited the collaboration of researchers as being able to accomplish the work – including Dr. Camilia Martin, who works with premature infants at the Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Sharon Donovan, who works with infant nutrition at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Dr. Ivan Ivanov at Texas A&M University provided expertise in computational biology to help decipher and interpret the complex gene signatures.

"The window that we're operating in is critical for understanding the optimal development of the baby," he said. "What is the optimal these babies should get and how do we impact that?"

Explore further: Breast-fed babies' gut microbes contribute to healthy immune systems

Related Stories

Breast-fed babies' gut microbes contribute to healthy immune systems

May 21, 2012
A new multi-university study reports that differences in bacterial colonization of the infant gut in formula-fed and breast-fed babies lead to changes in the expression of genes involved in the infant's immune system.

New infant formula ingredients boost babies' immunity by feeding their gut bacteria

February 29, 2012
Adding prebiotic ingredients to infant formula helps colonize the newborn's gut with a stable population of beneficial bacteria, and probiotics enhance immunity in formula-fed infants, two University of Illinois studies report.

Breastfeeding is associated with a healthy infant gut

April 30, 2012
Early colonization of the gut by microbes in infants is critical for development of their intestinal tract and in immune development. A new study, published in BioMed Central's open access journal Genome Biology, shows that ...

Formula-fed preemies at higher risk for dangerous GI condition than babies who get donor milk

May 1, 2011
Extremely premature babies fed human donor milk are less likely to develop the dangerous intestinal condition necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) than babies fed a standard premature infant formula derived from cow's milk, according ...

Recommended for you

Early studies of male birth-control pill show promise

March 23, 2018
Well, well, well. The ball has been knocked roundly into your court, gentlemen.

Whether sustained or sporadic, exercise offers same reductions in death risk

March 22, 2018
For decades, Americans have been inundated with a confusing barrage of messages about how best to counteract the health risks of sedentary lifestyles: walk 10,000 steps a day; do a seven-minute workout from a phone app; flip ...

Tai chi as good as or better than aerobic exercise for managing chronic pain

March 21, 2018
The ancient martial art of tai chi has similar or greater benefits than aerobic exercise for people with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, finds a trial published by The BMJ today.

Study: Poor health is a less common cause of bankruptcy than commonly thought, but it brings other economic woes

March 21, 2018
A team of researchers led by an MIT economist has found that medical expenses account for roughly 4 percent of bankruptcy filings among nonelderly adults in the U.S.

Study finds bad sleep habits start early in school-age children

March 21, 2018
Bad sleep habits in children begin earlier than many experts assume. That's the takeaway from a new study led by McGill University researchers. The findings suggest that official sleep guidelines for young school children ...

Medical expansion has improved health—with one exception

March 21, 2018
While Americans debate the rising cost of health care, a new study of 30 countries over 27 years found that medical expansion has improved overall health - with one major exception.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.