Modified Formula Aims to Prevent Death in Premature Infants

Transgenic soybeans in the last stages of tissue culture.
Transgenic soybeans in the last stages of tissue culture.

University of Arizona plant scientists are studying a novel approach at halting the leading cause of death in premature infants, adding a particular protein to soybeans that can be used in formula as a preventative measure.

About 10 percent of infants in the United States are born premature and among the greatest risks those babies face is Necrotizing Entercolitis, or NEC, an infection and inflammation that causes destruction of the intestine. NEC affects about 10,000 babies a year in the country, and mortality rates are roughly 40 percent.

Awarded a $275,000 National Institutes of Health proof-of-concept grant, Eliot Herman and Monica Schmidt are working to genetically modify soybeans to produce epidermal growth factor, or EGF, a protein that occurs naturally in mother's milk. EGF has been shown to prevent premature infants from developing NEC.

NEC develops when bacteria invade the cells of underdeveloped organs, and EGF effectively prevents the disease by sealing those cells so bacteria can't attack, says Herman. Prevention is key because once the condition develops, expensive surgery becomes the only treatment option.

Herman and Schmidt's potential treatment is not a drug but a therapeutic baby formula made from soybeans modified to produce a particular protein that aids in cell development. The NIH grant will support the production of EGF and testing the protein in a mouse model.

EGF is a small protein – 53 amino acids – that initiates a signal cascade involved in cell growth, proliferation and differentiation. Herman and Schmidt are producing EGF in transgenetic soybeans.

"It's almost an ideal vehicle to express foreign proteins," Schmidt says.

Read the rest of this May, 9 2013 UANews article at the link below.

Date released: 
May 22 2013