In cases where premature birth cannot be prevented, it is vital that babies receive a proper nutrition to help prevent health problems. Babies born prematurely often do not get all the nutrients they need just from breast milk, since it provides them with less protein, fat and carbohydrates than they would through the placenta if they were still in the womb.
“When we have a very premature baby, nutrition from breast milk is not enough, so it has to be fortified, “said Isabel Correa, founder and CEO of a company called PREEMIE based in London, UK.
Currently, premature babies often receive standard fortified breast milk in neonatal units of hospitals. Doctors often do urine tests on babies to determine if the supplement is appropriate. But because it is not tailored to individual needs or to the specific human milk being used, there is a risk that the milk will get too rich or too little, which could have side effects such as kidney failure or a child’s predisposition to obesity.
Correa and his colleagues are developing a system to test the nutritional content of breast milk in a few seconds and calculate the necessary fortification based on the baby’s needs. It can measure how much protein, fat, lactose and oligosaccharides – complex sugars – are found in breast milk – as well as how fresh, or how long the milk is in days.
“We are working to enable neonatal ICU professionals to perform a rapid and reliable analysis of a small amount of breast milk, thereby providing better individualized fortification for premature babies,” said Professor Enrico Bertino, professor and director of the Unit. of Neonatal Care from the University of Turin, in Italy, which is involved in a study of the device Preemie.
The objective is to develop an instrument that can be used in hospitals and in human milk banks. In Europe, women can donate excess breast milk to these services. Milk is given to babies or premature babies whose mothers are unable to breastfeed. But there is currently no cheap and easy way to test the milk they receive. “We offer a quick way to analyze human milk received in a milk bank to check its deterioration and freshness, as well as its nutritional value,” said Correa.
So far, the team has a working prototype that uses Bluetooth to connect to an app on a smartphone or tablet. Two drops of breast milk are placed in a small container and inserted into the device where it is scanned by a sensor and analyzed using artificial intelligence. Nutritional content and freshness of milk shown and then, using information about the baby, such as its weight, its enrichment is recommended according to European guidelines. This can be adjusted by a doctor if necessary, says Correa.
Professor Bertino and his colleagues have started tests to validate the prototype in order to obtain the medical certification. They recently started collecting milk from a milk bank and from mothers of premature babies at the Sant’Anna Hospital in Turin with the aim of obtaining at least 350 samples. The tests will validate how the system and the sensor evaluate the content of different nutrients.
Correa and his colleagues are now working on marketing the device as part of a project, also called Preemie. Once it is medically certified, which should be next year, the team hopes it will start to be used in neonatal units in hospitals across Europe. Eventually, they hope to make it available worldwide, where it could also be used outside of hospitals. “In the future we could be in a situation where mothers (with the advice of doctors) could do enrichment at home,” said Correa.