One of the biggest problems facing premature babies is an underdeveloped gut which prevents them from properly absorbing important nutrients from breastmilk or formula.
Lead researcher Kevin Nicholas from Deakin University’s Institute for Technology, Research and Innovation says while in its early stages, it could have applications for premature babies in developing counties.
He says the tamar wallaby has a 26-day pregnancy in comparison to a human’s nine months, but the marsupial has a 300-day lactation period and most of the joey’s development occurs after birth.
“What the [wallaby] mother does during a very long lactation is change the composition of milk progressively, and we know those changes in composition are very important for driving development of the young and of course the gut is a major target,” Professor Nicholas told Radio National’s Breakfast program.
The longer-term aim is to be able to provide a feed supplement that we can use in developing countries so that we can provide a simple, hygienic solution in a setting that’s not necessarily clinical or sophisticated.
Professor Kevin Nicholas
“It’s really those changes in composition that are so important… and we can target those and we can then identify, particularly proteins, that we think are important for developing the gut.”
Professor Nicholas cautions he is not advocating feeding premature babies wallaby milk.
“It’s actually just a model system to identify those proteins that are important and we can then go across to the human using a process called bioinformatics and we can identify similar proteins in the human,” he said.
“Now those signalling proteins may be presented to the foetus by the placenta or in the amniotic fluid, but nevertheless we can identify them.
“The longer-term aim is to be able to provide a feed supplement that we can use in developing countries so that we can provide a simple, hygienic solution in a setting that’s not necessarily clinical or sophisticated.”
He says the supplement could speed up the initial period of gut development in premature babies so they can better use their mother’s breastmilk.
“The reality is one of the best things a mother can do for her baby is provide colostrum; it’s full of nutrients and growth factors and developmental signals that are very, very helpful for the baby.”
His view is echoed by UNICEF Australia’s senior advocacy manager Aivee Chew.
“Breastmilk is so important for not only babies but particularly premature babies because it’s unparalleled in its ability to provide optimum nutrition for babies’ growth and development, physically as well as physiologically,” she said.
Breastmilk is so important for not only babies but particularly premature babies because it’s unparalleled in its ability to provide optimum nutrition for babies’ growth and development.
Aivee Chew from UNICEF
“It protects against chronic and infectious disease and we know that babies who are exclusively breastfed have rates reduced for admittance to hospital for issues such as diarrhoea.”
She says premature babies are severely overrepresented in worldwide child mortality figures and Professor Nicholas’s early research is exciting.
“UNICEF and the World Health Organisation started the baby-friendly health initiative; obviously within that we would promote breastmilk from the mother, however new research is always welcome.”
Professor Nicholas’s research stems from a $100,000 grant from Grand Challenges Explorations, created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to foster innovation in health research.
If he can prove his concept works, the Melbourne researcher says the organisation will provide up to $1 million to see it to the point of delivering an outcome.