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I-TEAM: Nursing mothers testing positive for COVID-19 passing protection to their newborns

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 6:18 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - From mother to microscope, a puzzle in the neonatal immunity is unfolding in a lab at Augusta University.

It’s no secret breast milk strengthens the immune system in newborns, but little was known about the impact of COVID-19 in nursing mothers until now. Our I-TEAM sat down with researchers who made the discovery.

The journal of breastfeeding published the findings from Augusta University just last week. The case study is full of long words and scientific terms, but the message is clear: nursing mothers positive with COVID-19 are passing some protection against the deadly virus to their newborn.

“We just looked breast milk and found a good number of them,” said Krystal Oestrich, a North Augusta mother and nurse practitioner.

“Them” being the secret ingredient in breastmilk: innate lymphoid cells or ILCs. A swat team of immune cells.

The I-TEAM asked Krystal, “What was your first thought when you found out you had COVID?”

“Um, I was nervous. Obviously, we had two kids and she was really young. From what we knew, we didn’t think it would cause serious effects for her, but at the same time we weren’t sure,” she said.

Her daughter Adaline never got COVID from her mother or another close encounter at school.

But Dr. Babak Baban at Augusta University did get something that was priceless: take a breast milk sample from a COVID-positive mother to compare to a sample he already had from Krystal for another study before COVID hit the U.S.

“Scientists are always after finding the reason on how our body is protected when we are born, so we thought maybe the cells are giving some sort of immunity at the early stage of our life,” Baban said.

Dr. Baban reported on ILCs in breastmilk three years ago and has been studying since then.

“So, if this is a cell, and this is the virus when it gets into the cell and basically unloads inside the virus, the cell immediately starts production of this protein which is called interfere alpha,” he explained. “Why is it called interfere? Because it comes from the word interference. It interferes with the virus’s life cycle.”

This brings us the milk samples from Krystal and why having one pre-COVID and one post-COVID is groundbreaking.

“This protein was super high in the milk which is very, very unexpected, it is a big molecule.,” Baban said.

The infected milk sample contained more virus-blocking proteins than the pre-COVID sample by an eightfold. Krystal still can’t believe the national and even global implications of her donations.

“It’s really reassuring that you kind of did the right thing and that perhaps me breastfeeding may have protected her,” she said.

Including this case, there are 26 cases of nursing mothers with COVID-19 and no vertical transmission to the infants.

The I-TEAM also analyzed a study from the researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. They published a study around the same time as researchers at AU.

Their study show vaccinated mothers are also passing COVID fighting antibodies to their infants. They found a huge boost in antibodies against the COVID-19 virus in breast milk starting two weeks after the first (Pfizer) shot.

The study also shows “nursing mothers who receive a COVID-19 vaccine may pass protective antibodies to their babies through breast milk for at least 80 days following vaccination.”

“I’m just excited to be part of the research if we can do something to help to put the pieces of the puzzle together if it’s a comfort to moms who may be in a stressful situation,” Krystal said.

Researchers saw an increase of another type of cell in post-COVID milk sample too which could play a role in protecting cells in the mother’s breast from COVID.

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