Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

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New research working towards preventing and treating necrotizing enterocolitis in premature babies

Image of a preterm baby via Wikimedia Commons

Necrotizing enterocolitis is an inflammatory disease of the intestines. New research suggests that premature babies are at risk of necrotizing enterocolitis in part because they have low levels of arachidonic and docosahexanoic acids in their gut, which regulate inflammation. Doctors routinely administer nutritional supplements to premature babies via an intravenous (i.v.) route until the gastrointestinal tract develops and the babies are able to process oral foods. This parenteral nutrition helps to prevent the development of necrotizing enterocolitis as well as treat the condition if it develops.

A new study published in the American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology explored whether the fatty acid content of parenteral supplements could help prevent necrotizing enterocolitis. The researchers administered nutritional supplements containing different fatty acids (100% soybean oil, 15% fish oil, or 100% fish oil) to preterm pigs. These types of supplements are commonly provided to premature infants although soybean oil has high levels of omega-6 fatty acids that can cause inflammation. While the researchers found that the supplements did not reduce risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, they were able to identify several metabolic pathways that were altered in the pigs that had developed the condition. Notably, the premature pigs with the disease had altered amino acid, carbohydrate and fat metabolism as well as altered signaling between cells. These discoveries may lead to the development of treatments for this potentially devastating condition.   


W Yakah, P Singh, J Brown, B Stoll, D Burrin, MH Premkumar, HH Otu, X Gu, ST Dillon, TA Libermann, SD Freedman, CR Martin. Parenteral lipid emulsions induce unique ileal fatty acid and metabolomic profiles but do not increase the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm pigs. American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology. 320(2): G227-G239, 2021.

Categories: Illnesses and Injuries, Reproduction and Development

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