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Keywords:

  • asthma;
  • bronchiolitis;
  • cytokines;
  • human milk;
  • respiratory syncytial virus

Although epidemiological evidence is generally supportive of a causal association between respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) bronchiolitis during infancy and the development of persistent wheeze/asthma, if not allergy, the mechanism by which this occurs and an explanation for why all children do not succumb remains to be elucidated. Breast feeding has been found to confer a protective effect against respiratory infections such as RSV bronchiolitis and allergy; however, again there is little direct evidence and no clear mechanism. In this study, we examined whether human milk immunomodulatory factors (cells, cytokines) change in response to clinically diagnosed, severe bronchiolitis in the recipient breast-fed infant. We examined milk from 36 breast feeding mothers of infants hospitalized with bronchiolitis and compared them with milk from 63 mothers of postpartum age-matched healthy controls. Milks from mothers of infants hospitalized with bronchiolitis had significantly greater numbers of viable cells when compared with the milks obtained from mothers of healthy infants (1.3 ± 0.4 vs. 0.3 ± 0.03 × 106 cells/ml, mean ± s.e.m.; p ≤ 0.001). Further, the cells obtained from the mothers of infants hospitalized with bronchiolitis were found to produce a skewed cytokine profile ex vivo in response to stimulation by live RSV but not when cultured with a non-specific mitogen (concanavalin A). This study provides preliminary evidence for an immunological link between mothers and their breast-fed infants during severe respiratory infections as well as a possible contributing factor to the development of persistent wheeze in these infants.