Part 2 of My Interview with Human Milk Researcher, Shannon L Kelleher, PhD: Pre-term Infants and NEC

I am thrilled to share part 2 of my interview with human milk researcher, Shannon L Kelleher, PhD. I wanted to share with everyone that Dr. Kelleher is doing exciting studies currently, one right here at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit!

Dr. Kelleher's goal is to start a Lactation Research Center here at Penn State Hershey!!! I hope to collaborate with her so that together we can do great things to promote the science of human milk. 

Jody: Can you talk a bit more about your current study, in preterm infants and NEC? 

Dr. Kelleher: This study is not about ZnT2 in the mom, but is about ZnT2 in the infant. Some of our unpublished studies suggest that ZnT2 is not just important for secreting zinc into milk, but we think it is important for Paneth cells, which are cells in the intestine that regulate gut development and protect against infection. Paneth cell dysfunction is associated with NEC, which is a devastating disease particularly in preterm infants, where a portion of the gut undergoes necrosis, and is the second most common cause of death in premies. A major problem is that we can’t predict if an infant is going to get NEC. We reasoned, and we just started this study so we have no idea if we are on the right track, that infants with variation in ZnT2 might have problems with their Paneth cells and be at risk for NEC. We are currently conducting a study in the neonatal intensive care center at Penn State Hershey Medical Center to test this. Our hope is that if we can identify infants at risk we can develop strategies to reduce the impact of this devastating disease. 

Jody: Can you tell me more about your next study for low production and if you are looking for moms to participate? 

Dr. Kelleher: This study stems from some of our most recent research in mice and breastfeeding women that indicates ZnT2 is not just important for secreting zinc into milk but is critical for mammary gland function in general. If ZnT2 doesn’t work appropriately, the lactating mammary gland does not expand appropriately and may either involute prematurely or sub-optimally. Additionally, we found that women with 2 particular variants in ZnT2 had a high sodium/potassium ratio, which suggests problems with general breast function. I am very interested in understanding how maternal diet and genetics affects milk volume and composition. We hope to be starting a study to look at genetic determinants of milk volume soon, which will focus on ZnT2 and some other proteins we think are particularly critical. Once we get approval, we will certainly be looking for moms to participate and would appreciate any help in getting the word out! If you think about it, when you’re breastfeeding you have no idea how much milk you are producing or if the composition is optimal and as long as your baby isn’t overtly ill, you assume that everything is working well. But is it? Our hope is that if we can better understand how lactation works, why it fails and how diet affects the ability to produce enough quality milk (as you know it’s shocking how little we know) then we can better educate and support breastfeeding women and their infants.

Dr Kelleher: We have ~10 papers coming out in the next year on everything from how Zn deficiency affects breast development & risk for breast cancer, to how Zn regulates involution and is dysregulated during obesity so we have a lot going on


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