Breast milk interleukin-7 and thymic gland development in infancy.


Pediatric Allergy and Immunology Unit, Children's Hospital, Ain Shams University, Cairo, 11566, Egypt. [Email]


OBJECTIVE : Interleukin-7 (IL-7) is known to be important for lymphocyte development. We sought to investigate the maternal breast milk IL-7 expression to explore its impact on thymus development in infants.
METHODS : We conducted a prospective study on three groups of healthy infants classified into exclusively breast-fed (n = 19), formula-fed (n = 17) and mixed-fed (n = 19) infants. They were investigated at 2, 4 and 6 months of age for thymic indices by ultrasonography, T lymphocyte subsets enumeration by flowcytometry and breast milk IL-7 levels.
RESULTS : Thymic indices were higher at the age of 2 and 6 months in the exclusively breast-fed infants (mean ± SD 22.4 ± 2.1, 26.2 ± 2.7 mm3, respectively) and mixed-fed infants (mean ± SD 22 ± 3.2, 25 ± 3.2, respectively) as compared to formula-fed infants (mean ± SD 17.9 ± 3.7, 21.6 ± 3.9 respectively); p < 0.001. In the exclusively breast-fed infants, IL-7 levels correlated positively to thymic indices and CD3+ T cell numbers at 2 months of age. Positive correlations were elicited in the mixed-fed group at 2, 4 and 6 months of age for thymic indices and at 6 months for CD3+ cells.
CONCLUSIONS : Breast milk and/or its IL-7 content have a significant positive impact on thymic development. Our conclusions are limited by the sample size and short duration of follow-up. What is known is that breast milk has a trophic role in thymic development and contains IL-7. What is new is that there is positive correlation between breast milk IL-7 concentration and thymic development and lymphocyte output; variation of IL-7 levels with type of feeding (exclusive breast feeding/mixed breast and formula feeding) and with time postnatally.


Breast milk,IL-7,Immunity,Infants,T-cells,Thymus,

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