How breastfeeding offers immune benefits

When infants breastfeed, they receive an immune boost that helps them fight off infectious diseases, according to recent research from Binghamton University Associate Professor of Anthropology Katherine Wander.

She is the lead author of “Tradeoffs in milk immunity affect infant infectious disease risk,” published this June in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health. Co-authors include Masako Fujita from Michigan State University’s Anthropology Department, Siobhan Mattison from the University of New Mexico’s Anthropology Department and the National Science Foundation; and Frida Mowo, Ireen Kiwelu and Blandina Mmbaga in Tanzania, whose associations include the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre and the Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute. Binghamton University graduate students were also part of the research team, with tasks ranging from data collection in Tanzania to data-cleaning and analysis. They include Margaret Duris, Megan Gauck, Tessa Hopt, Katherine Lacy, Angela Foligno, Rebecca Ulloa and Connor Dodge.

For the project, the research team studied almost 100 mother and baby pairs in rural Kilimanjaro. Prolonged breastfeeding is the norm in this population and infectious diseases during infancy are very common, even compared to other areas of East Africa. This makes Kilimanjaro an ideal setting to begin to understand how immune protection from milk might affect infectious disease risk, Wander said.

“You most often hear about the immune system of milk in terms of transferring maternal antibodies to infants via milk — which is probably very important — but it seems there’s much more going on as well. The immune system of milk is a whole system, capable of mounting immune responses,” Wander said. “We’re only beginning to understand the full extent and role of the immune system of milk.”

Milk and immunity

Mother’s milk contains everything needed to mount immune responses, from antibodies to multiple types of immune cells and more. While they originate from the mother’s immune system, these components of milk appear to be curated rather than selected at random from the mother’s blood, although that mechanism remains poorly understood, Wander explained.

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