Researchers Drs. Dat  Tran,  Marc Rhoads, and Yuying Liu.
Researchers Drs. Dat Tran, Marc Rhoads, and Yuying Liu.

Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a preclinical study investigating whether a probiotic might be helpful in preventing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).

A life-threatening disease in pre-term infants, NEC occurs when the lining of an infant’s intestinal wall dies and the tissue falls off. The mortality rate is about 25 percent, and half of very low-birth-weight babies with NEC will need surgery. Currently, there is no treatment to cure or modify the course of NEC. Breast-feeding can be protective, but not all premature infants are breast fed.

Dr. Yuying Liu, assistant professor of pediatric gastroenterology, and Dr. Marc Rhoads, professor and director of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition here and at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, will try to decipher the optimal dose and mechanism of action of the study probiotic, Lactobacillus reuteri. This builds on previous research by the team, which showed that the probiotic can prevent NEC in rodents.

“We will be looking for the effects of the probiotic on cells that regulate intestinal inflammation, such as lymphocytes and dendritic cells, to prevent and ease NEC in animal models,” Rhoads said. Dendritic cells are resident white blood cells that send out “arms” into the intestinal contents to “sample” the bacteria and allow the bacteria to tolerate helpful organisms.

The use of the probiotic was reinforced clinically by an 8-year retrospective cohort study at Women’s Hospital in North Carolina that found Lactobacillus reuteri drops given to all premature babies in their nursery reduced the rate of NEC in their neonatal intensive care unit by 85 percent, but the exact mechanism remains unknown.

The research will be done in collaboration with Dr. Dat Tran, assistant professor of pediatric allergy, immunology and rheumatology, and Dr. Mike Ferris, associate professor of pediatrics and microbiology at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

“Our research is designed to show how Lactobacillus reuteri treatment affects the intestinal flora, and whether it helps to produce increased richness and diversity in the babies’ microbiota,” Liu said. “Ultimately, we hope to provide novel insights into the mechanisms of how probiotics regulate neonatal intestinal inflammation. This may lead to the ability to select optimal biomarkers and optimal probiotic and dosing schemes in children with intestinal inflammatory conditions.”

The grant is funded by the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health (1R01AT007083-01A1).

-Hannah Rhodes, Office of Public Affairs, UTHealth