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Scientists working to help premature infants

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NE) is the second most common cause of illness in premature infants. It causes inflammation in the intestine, and can lead to death. NE affects about 10% of infants born per year.

One study by Dvorak, et al. found a 50% reduction in the incidence of NE in lab animals given epidermal growth factor (EGF). This hormone, found naturally in mother’s breast milk, helps reduce inflammation, and improves the function of the intestinal tract. However, premature infants have difficulty nursing, and some mothers are unable to nurse at all. Dr. Brad Warner at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis wanted to see if this study could apply to premature infants.

soybean embryos in a flask

Enter Monica Schmidt, a researcher at University of Arizona. Schmidt and her team of plant scientists have found ways to insert the EGF protein into soybeans. When the soybeans are processed into infant formula, the EGF remains in sufficient levels to help the babies. The research is important, because EGF is an “orphan drug,” one that won’t be considered by pharmaceutical companies for various reasons. Very little EGF is used in medicine, so creating in a large scale is not cost-effective. Schmidt says this version of EGF in formula is more of a nutraceutical, a therapeutic baby formula.

“Our strategy is to make soybean a factory for EGF…by EGF being made directly in soybean seeds,” says Schmidt. “Then soy milk is made from the seeds so EGF is directly delivered into the milk. This circumvents the costly need to purify the compound as would be needed by other means of production.”

“My research works on value-added traits,” says Schmidt. “Traits that will make the soybeans better, to a variety of consumers. It could be for chickens, pigs, humans…in this case, it’s EGF for premature babies.”

Working with soybeans made sense for the EGF project, because EGF is a protein. “You can’t beat soybean for work like this, since soybeans are already 40% protein.”

According to Schmidt, it takes about 4 months to get a “transgenic plant embryo,” one that can be tested to discover if they transferred EGF gene into the soybean. “Then it takes another 4 months to get an actual plant in the greenhouse with soybean seeds. Since we only work on seed-specific traits, it’s not just the plant we are after. We need the seeds. Then we can tell if the seeds have our trait, if we were successful at producing it and how much it’s produced.”

Next up in Schmidt’s research is to combine her work with EGF with other work on beta-carotene in soybeans. “Since beta-carotene also helps intestinal health, it might make sense to combine the two elements in the formula.” Many parents of premature infants can be grateful to these scientists behind the scenes.