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J Pediatr. 2010 Feb;156(2 Suppl):S31-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2009.11.018.

Milk epidermal growth factor and gut protection.

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Department of Pediatrics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA.


Maternal milk is a complex fluid, with multifunctional roles within the developing gastrointestinal tract. Epidermal growth factor (EGF) and heparin-binding EGF-like growth factor (HB-EGF) are members of the family of EGF-related peptides. Biological actions of these growth factors are mediated via interaction with the EGF-receptor (EGF-R). In the early postnatal period, breast milk is the major source of EGF for the developing intestinal mucosa. HB-EGF is also detected in breast milk, but in concentrations 2 to 3 times lower than EGF. With normal physiological conditions, the intestinal epithelium undergoes a continuing process of cell proliferation, differentiation, and maturation. EGF plays an important role in these processes. In pathophysiologic situations, EGF contributes to epithelial protection from injury and post-injury mucosal repair. Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a devastating disease affecting infants born prematurely. The pathogenesis of NEC is not known, and there is no effective treatment for this disease. In an experimental NEC model, oral administration of a physiological dose of EGF significantly reduces the incidence and severity of NEC. HB-EGF provides similar protection against NEC, but only when pharmacological doses are used. Further studies are necessary before EGF can be introduced as an efficient therapeutic approach of intestinal injury.

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