Babies born prematurely can catch up their immune systems, says study

It was found that the immune systems of prematurely born infants progressed irrespective of the number of weeks they were born before the gestation period

Babies born prematurely before the 32 weeks gestation period can obtain rapidly certain adult immune functions post-birth that is comparable to that attained by babies born after full says a study by researchers from King's College London & Homerton University Hospital.

Published in Nature Communications, the study involved the researchers observing infants born prematurely (i.e) before the 32-week gestation period. The intention was to identify various populations of immune cells, their state, their capacity in the production of moderators, and how these characteristics transformed post-natally.

Immune profiles progressed

They found that all the infants' immune profiles progressed in a similar direction as they aged, regardless of the number of weeks of gestation at birth. Babies born at the earliest gestations - before 28 weeks - made a greater degree of movement over a similar time period to those born at later gestation. This suggests that preterm and term infants converge in a similar time frame, and immune development in all babies follows a set path after birth.

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Dr. Deena Gibbons, a lecturer in Immunology in the School of Immunology & Microbial Sciences, said: "These data highlight that the majority of immune development takes place after birth and, as such, even those babies born very prematurely have the ability to develop a normal immune system."

Infection and infection-related complications are significant causes of death following preterm birth. Despite this, there is limited understanding of the development of the immune system in babies born prematurely, and how this development can be influenced by the environment post-birth.

First few months crucial

Some preterm babies who went on to develop infection showed reduced CXCL8-producing T cells at birth. This suggests that infants at risk of infection and complications in the first few months of their life could be identified shortly after birth, which may lead to improved outcomes.

There were limited differences driven by sex which suggests that the few identified may play a role in the observations that preterm male infants often experience poorer outcomes. The findings build on previous findings studying the infant immune system.

Dr. Deena Gibbons: "We are continuing to study the role of the CXCL8-producing T cell and how it can be activated to help babies fight infection. We also want to take a closer look at other immune functions that change during infection to help improve outcomes for this vulnerable group."

(With inputs from agencies)