Breast milk can protect premature babies from a potentially deadly gastrointestinal disease, a new study has found.

Premature infants are at an increased risk for necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a disease that affects the intestines. The researchers at The Saban Research Institute of Children's Hospital Los Angeles say that breast milk, but not formula milk, protects babies against this deadly illness. In fact, formula milk feeding is one of the risk factors for the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that women must exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six months. A recent study had shown that breastfed babies have faster developing brains. Breastfeeding also helps strengthen the bond between the mother and baby.

NEC is known to kill thirty percent of all affected babies. Even the survivors face long-term health complications and require surgeries to remove damaged parts of the intestines. 

For the study, the researchers conducted a series of investigations using animal models as well as in vitro analysis. The team even analyzed human breast milk and intestinal tissue from infants.

The scientists found that formula-fed rats had a condition that resembled NEC, but animals that received formula plus the NRG4 did not show intestinal damage. According to the researchers, NRG4 protein binds with ErbB4, which is a receptor found in the intestine. The mechanism prevents damage to the intestines.

"Our research suggests that without the NRG4 protein found in breast milk, a normal protection mechanism for the immature gut may be missing," said Mark R. Frey, PhD, the study's principal investigator at The Saban Research Institute of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, according to a news release. "If a baby on formula encounters an NEC trigger such as intestinal infection or injury, he or she may be at increased risk for a life-threatening condition."

Paneth cells are located throughout the small intestine. Loss of these cells is known to be associated with NEC. These cells also have intestinal stem cells that are required for restoration and upkeep of the intestines.

"We're finding a protective protein in breast milk, with its receptor in the intestine," said Frey in a news release. "Given that NEC is a significant clinical problem without an effective treatment, we plan to evaluate NRG4 for its therapeutic potential in this disease."