Breastfeeding moms’ milk can transfer life-long protection against infection to their babies

Summary: Maternal exposure to infection prior to pregnancy can transfer into life long cellular immunity in infants who are breastfed.

Source: University of Birmingham

Previously, it was generally thought that immunity against illness is passed from mum to baby for only the period they are breastfed and this protection ends when breastfeeding stops. It was also thought that this immunity was transferred by a mother’s proteins such as antibodies that are used by the immune system to neutralize bacteria and viruses.

However, research in mice by scientists published today in Science Advances, has found that the transfer of immunity can be long-term, beyond the period of breastfeeding. They also found that this protection was driven by the transfer of immune cells and was completely independent of antibodies.

The research found that infant mice breastfed by a mother who had a worm infection before becoming pregnant acquired life-long protection against this infection.

Unexpectedly, this effect was passed onto the infants by cells in the mother’s milk and not proteins such as antibodies. These transferred cells provided protection from worm infection throughout the body to the infant. This work shows that mothers exposed, even before pregnancy, to a globally prevalent source of infection provides long-term breastfeeding-acquired immunity to infection in their infants.

Lead and corresponding author Dr William Horsnell, who works across the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Microbiology and Infection, the University of Orléans in France and the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said:

“Immune transfer from mother to infant via breastfeeding is a very important source of protection from early life infection.

“This is the first demonstration that infection prior to pregnancy can transfer life-long cellular immunity to infants.”

“The work shows that exposure to an infection before pregnancy can lead to a mother transferring long term immune benefits to her offspring. This is remarkable and adds a new dimension to our understanding of how a mother can influence our health.”

Adam Cunningham, Professor of Functional Immunity at the University of Birmingham and co-director of the BactiVac Network which aims to accelerate the development of bacterial vaccines in a bid to prevent infections, added: “We are particularly interested in how these findings may help to design maternal vaccine strategies that provide longer-term protection to children.

This shows a mom breastfeeding her baby
The research found that infant mice breastfed by a mother who had a worm infection before becoming pregnant acquired life-long protection against this infection. The image is in the public domain.

“This work shows that maternal exposure to infection can permanently alter offspring immunity. Currently vaccination of mothers to protect infants against infection is very important in boosting protection from infection to newborns, however, this protection is considered to be transient.

“Our work shows that, in some cases, this effect can also be permanent. This could lead to the design of new vaccines that will be able to be given to a mother to transfer long-term immunity to her children.”

Professor Kai-Michael Toellner, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, added: “We hope this research will lead to human investigations into how maternal exposure to pathogens prior to pregnancy can influence infant health.”

About this neuroscience research article

University of Birmingham
Media Contacts:
Emma McKinney – University of Birmingham
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Pre-conception maternal helminth infection transfers via nursing long-lasting cellular immunity against helminths to offspring”. Dr William Horsnell et al.
Science Advances. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aav30580


Pre-conception maternal helminth infection transfers via nursing long-lasting cellular immunity against helminths to offspring

Maternal immune transfer is the most significant source of protection from early-life infection, but whether maternal transfer of immunity by nursing permanently alters offspring immunity is poorly understood. Here, we identify maternal immune imprinting of offspring nursed by mothers who had a pre-conception helminth infection. Nursing of pups by helminth-exposed mothers transferred protective cellular immunity to these offspring against helminth infection. Enhanced control of infection was not dependent on maternal antibody. Protection associated with systemic development of protective type 2 immunity in T helper 2 (TH2) impaired IL-4Rα−/− offspring. This maternally acquired immunity was maintained into maturity and required transfer (via nursing) to the offspring of maternally derived TH2-competent CD4 T cells. Our data therefore reveal that maternal exposure to a globally prevalent source of infection before pregnancy provides long-term nursing-acquired immune benefits to offspring mediated by maternally derived pathogen-experienced lymphocytes.

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  1. Yikes… doesn’t anyone read anymore? The article is showing that helminths that redefine the immune system into a tolerant state can be conferred off spring…. SO the state of the mothers immune system is gifted…. So sure they could look at ways to do that immunization is one way … helminthic therapy is another…. its not only a vaccine choice.

  2. I find it disappointing that the researchers want to use this new understanding to create new vaccines rather than find more ways to encourage and support breastfeeding women

  3. Natural natural wild disease acquired through mom like measles is lifelong immunity for mom and protects her from certain cancers later in life while also protecting her vulnerable infant/toddler while breastfeeding when viruses are most dangerous. Injecting measles creates a vaccines strain measles that is not life long immunity, sheds and spreads the virus ? and when injected into children combined with fragments of aborted baby dna is not natural nor has any of it proven safe in a real double blind placebo. You cannot she the vaccine manufacturer like Merck who brought us vioxx for death or damages like the dozens listed in the manufacturer insert. Injecting mom while
    Pregnant with flu vaccines or tdap have not been studied for safety. They don’t track this experiment that has been taking place. You will not create more vaccines for a pregnant woman because you will never do the gold standard safety testing on them. You will
    It track the spontaneous abortions associated with that next magical vaccine that you expect to make billions from. #plotkinonvaccines should open you eyes to the serious problem we have on this subject.

  4. The article is only published because it is talking about children getting immunity from vaccinated mothers! This perversion of the fact that those of us who aquired measles, for eg, naturally, and passed on that immunity to our children in the womb and through breastfeeding have actually protected them a thousand times better than any vaccine ever could. And that if we had never produced a measles vaccine measles would have gone the way of scarlet fever and the black plague long ago.

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