UWA Study: Babies with intestinal problems have unhealthy microbes

For some babies, having intestinal problems lead to altered gut microbiota, increasing their chances of infections, new study shows.

Babies born with congenital surgical gut problems end up developing an unhealthy gut microbiota, a new study found.  The findings give insights about the need of future treatments for these babies, which should aim to correct their microbial flora.

About the problem
Babies born with abnormal intestines, technically called major congenital gastrointestinal surgical conditions or CGISCs, usually require corrective surgery within days of being born. For more information bout CGISCs, see this website.

Unfortunately, babies born with a CGISC are at an increased risk of developing other problems, such as infections and milk intolerance, where they don’t digest and absorb milk efficiently in the first few weeks of life. Babies that develop these problems normally receive antibiotics for their infections and parenteral nutrition, administered intravenously for few weeks, until they are able to process milk on their own.

As a consequence of these interventions, the composition of microbes living in the gut (the gut microbiota) can become altered. “there is a theoretical possibility that such interventions can hinder the development of healthy bacteria in the baby’s gut. The end result is known as gut dysbiosis, which means the gut gets colonised with more harmful pathogenic bacteria and less amounts of healthy bacteria,” said Dr Shripada Rao, a neonatologist from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Perth Children’s Hospital, and lead author of the study.

“The end result is known as gut dysbiosis, which means the gut gets colonised with more harmful pathogenic bacteria and less amounts of healthy bacteria,” he added.

A potential consequence of this gut dysbiosis is that babies can experience a significant delay in their recovery. However, most of these arguments remain theoretical. So far, very few studies have evaluated the gut microbiota of newborn babies with CGISC.

About this study
With these issues in mind, Dr Rao led a study comparing stool microbiota between 37 term infants with CGISCs and 36 healthy infants. Two stool samples were collected from each infant, first at the time of birth and the second one 10–14 days later.

The study also measured levels of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are the chemicals produced by gut bacteria, which have important roles in different aspects of our body’s physiology, including brain function, immunity, muscle function, and more.

The results of this study showed that, indeed, the gut microbiota of babies with CGISCs has an altered composition.

“Our analysis confirmed the original hypothesis that babies with surgical conditions of the gut had significantly lower amounts of healthy bacteria and excessive amounts of harmful bacteria by 10-14 days of life compared to healthy breastfed infants without surgical conditions,” Dr Rao said.

“The analysis also found that the amount of short chain fatty acids in their stool samples were significantly less than healthy infants,” he added.

The findings represent a significant milestone in our understanding of the drivers of health and disease in babies with CGISCs. Future studies can build upon these findings to design new and effective strategies to treat these vulnerable babies.

“Now that the study has proven that gut dysbiosis occurs in newborn babies with surgical conditions of the gut, future studies will be able to test the efficacy of giving oral probiotics to improve their gut bacterial health,” Dr Rao said.