Mothers can transfer life-long protection against infection to their
infants by breastfeeding. This was the finding from new research in mice
by an international team of scientists led by researchers at the
University of Cape Town (UCT).
Previously it was generally
thought that immunity against illness is passed from mum to baby for
only the period they are breastfed, and this protection ends when
breastfeeding stops. It was also thought that this immunity was
transferred by a mother's proteins such as antibodies that are used by
the immune system to neutralize bacteria and viruses.
research have found that the transfer of immunity can be long-term,
beyond the period of breastfeeding. They also found that this protection
was driven by the transfer of immune cells and was completely
independent of antibodies.
The research found that infant mice
breastfed by a mother who had a worm infection before getting pregnant
acquired life-long protection against this infection.Unexpectedly, this
effect was passed onto the infants by cells in the mother's milk and not
proteins such as antibodies. These transferred cells provided
protection from worm infection throughout the body to the infant. This
work shows that mothers exposed - even before pregnancy - to a globally
prevalent source of infection provides long-term breastfeeding acquired
immunity to infection in infants.
Lead Researcher, Dr William
Horsnell, from UCT's Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular
Medicine and the Division of Immunology said:
Immune transfer from mother to infant via breastfeeding is a very important source of protection from early life infection. To the best of our knowledge this is the first demonstration that infection prior to pregnancy can transfer life-long cellular immunity to infants.
The work shows that exposure to an infection before pregnancy can lead to a mother transferring long term immune benefits to her offspring. This is remarkable and adds a new dimension to our understanding of how a mother can influence our health."