Genes may influence nutritional composition of breast milk

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. The nutritional composition of a mother's breast milk may depend not just on her diet but on her genes according to new research at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

"It is well known that genes control the nutrient levels in cow's milk" said Richard B. Weinberg, M.D. "But until now, no one has considered how genes might affect human breast milk. This is the first study to demonstrate a genetic effect on human lactation." The results were presented today at Digestive Disease Week 2005 in Chicago, Ill.

The research study looked at how much of an omega-3 fat called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) gets from a mother's diet into her breast milk. DHA, which is found mainly in cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel, is essential for healthy brain and eye development. DHA is now added to several brands of infant formula because of research showing its beneficial effects.

One study, for example, found that premature babies who got DHA supplements had better vision and reached development milestones earlier than infants who didn't get the supplements. On the other hand, insufficient DHA has been implicated in developmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning disabilities, Weinberg said.

"Until now, we've assumed that women consuming an equal amount of DHA in their diets would have the same amount in their breast milk," said Weinberg, a professor of gastroenterology and nutrition researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "But we found that women with a common genetic variant produced milk containing higher levels of DHA."

In the study, 111 women ate a meal with an added dose of DHA and then pumped their breast milk hourly for 12 hours. The researchers then analyzed the amount of DHA and other fats in their blood and breast milk, and determined which women carried variants of ApoA4, a gene involved in dietary fat absorption. The r

Contact: Karen Richardson
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center

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