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CITI-GENS DTP: Understanding the protective effect of human milk for necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) through host-pathogen interactions

School of Biological Sciences

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Dr S Cameron , Dr B Collins No more applications being accepted

About the Project

This project is one of those advertised under the CITI-GENS programme. For more information on the programme please visit: go.qub.ac.uk/citigens


Human milk (HM) is a complex biofluid that has evolved to contain thousands of bioactives to develop the new-borns’ immature immunity. Although benefits of breastfeeding are numerous to both mother and child, one of the most well-defined benefits is in the reduction in risk of NEC – a condition where the gut becomes inflamed and perforates. For babies born before 30 weeks of gestation, the risk of developing NEC is 20 times higher if they are formula rather than breastfed. How exactly this is mediated is, however, not well defined.

This project will take an interdisciplinary approach combining the microbiology and metabolomics (Cameron) and proteomics (Collins) expertise of the supervisory team to develop a systems biology view of host-pathogen interactions. Through the utilisation of samples collected as part of a longitudinal cohort organised by the Human Milk Foundation, an in vitro system will be used to model how different components of HM interact with key NEC pathogens. Human milk samples will be fractionated and treated to separate biomolecules of different chemical classes and incubated with single and multi-species communities associated with the new-born gut microbiome. Metabolomic and proteomic analysis will be used to identify key mediators of host-pathogen interactions which will then be carried forward for further analysis to identify whether they act in isolation or unison with other HM bioactives. As donor HM is frequently the source of feeding for new-borns at risk of NEC, this project will also take an intersectoral approach through partnership with the Hearts Milk Bank (run by the Human Milk Foundation) to understand how routine processing and storing of donor HM may affect bioactives molecules associated with NEC suppression. Comparison against international milk bank practices will also be undertaken to establish potential best practice methods for preserving HM bioactives for management of NEC risk.

This project has many international elements, as a primary result of the global decline in breastfeeding rates. This project will address the issue of NEC and how it can be better understood to improve treatment outcomes for prematurely born infants. This would have a global impact. The work would be of considerable interest to the international human milk and infant feeding scientific communities and would be presented at the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation bi-annual conference and published in international journals.

The project will be supervised by Dr Simon Cameron and Dr Ben Collins (School of Biological Sciences) and Dr Natalie Shenker (Human Milk Foundation).

The deadline for applications is Friday 10th July 2020 at 4 pm.

Funding Notes

This project is co-funded by the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union and the Department for the Economy.

The programme covers the tuition fees and salary, please visit go.qub.ac.uk/citigens for information on eligibility and salary.

*** Prior to applying, candidates should ensure that they read the full information and guidance on eligibility and the application process at go.qub.ac.uk/citigens ***

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