Preemies' impaired immune systems quickly catch up

Premature infants' immune systems develop at a rate similar to full-term infants, a new study finds.

British researchers tracked immune system development in babies born before 32 weeks, including identifying different immune cell populations and the types of bacteria present in stool samples.

All of the preemies' immune systems progressed similarly as they got older, regardless of how early they were born.

Babies born after the shortest gestation – earlier than 28 weeks – had a greater degree of immune system progress over a similar time period than those who spent more time in the womb.

Environment after birth

The findings suggest that preterm and full-term infants' immune system development follows a set pattern after birth, according to the study authors.

"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," said study author Deena Gibbons, a lecturer in immunology at King's College London.

Infection and related complications are significant causes of death among premature babies, but researchers said there is limited understanding of how their immune systems develop and how that can be influenced by the environment after birth.

Researchers also found that some preterm babies who developed infection had reduced CXCL8 (interleukin 8)-producing T-cells at birth. T-cells play a key role in immune response to infection.

Improving outcomes

The finding suggests that infants at risk of infection and complications in the first few months of life could be identified shortly after birth, which may improve their outcomes.

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

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Image credit: iStock

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