Scientists discover new protection against COVID-19 during pregnancy

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New research has discovered that breast milk and amniotic fluid may provide protection from COVID-19 during pregnancy.

In a new study conducted in collaboration between Swansea University and the University of Aberdeen, researchers identify potential protective effects in breast milk and amniotic fluid that protect against COVID-19 during pregnancy, enhancing the safety of newborns.

The findings, which were funded by EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) at Swansea University and the Welsh Government’s Sêr Cymru III Tackling COVID-19 initiative, were published in Children’s allergy and immunity.

Previous research indicates that membrane-bound receptors such as ACE2, CD26, CD147, and NRP1 contribute to the entry of coronaviruses into human cells. However, previous studies have suggested that soluble forms of ACE2, sCD26, sCD147, and sNRP-1 protein may trap virus in biological fluids, thereby preventing cell infection by acting as a decoy.

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Possible preventive measures during pregnancy

Severe COVID-19 during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm delivery and admission to intensive care, and although most pregnant women with or without symptoms of COVID-19 will not experience severe side effects, it is critical that there is ongoing research into Preventive measures against COVID-19 in pregnant women and newborns.

Professors and students at Swansea University and the University of Aberdeen aim to reveal whether the concentration levels of the ACE2 protein in breast milk and amniotic fluid are large enough to serve as a protective measure during pregnancy against SARS-CoV-2. To conduct the study, test samples from breast milk collected at two and six weeks postpartum and amniotic fluid from 37 weeks plus gestation, donated before Covid, were tested for the soluble receptor, ACE2.

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The results determined that high levels of this specific protein were detected in both breast milk and amniotic fluid, indicating that nursing mothers and pregnant women have lower chances of infection and virus severity in fetuses and children. Further examination of the proteins through imaging by a team at Swansea University and the University of Aberdeen discovered that the receptors have different isoforms, the same molecule but of different lengths.

“It was a curious finding that babies before and after birth are relatively protected from SARS-CoV-2,” said April Reese, a doctoral student at Swansea University and a biochemistry educator. “Our findings here may shed some light on why this is. It adds to the The argument that breastfeeding is more beneficial, and therefore helping to help mothers breastfeed, is vital.”

Professor Stephen Turner, Consultant Pediatrician at the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital and Professor Emeritus at the University of Aberdeen said: “There is a long list of good reasons for mothers to breastfeed their babies wherever possible, and child protection from COVID-19 can now be added to the list. Pregnant mothers can also protect themselves and their baby by getting the COVID-19 vaccine.”

It is widely known that there is a higher risk of infection and risk in pregnant women due to a weakened immune system when compared to non-pregnant women. Therefore, it is important to provide insight into preventive measures against COVID-19 and other viral infections. Currently, COVID-19 vaccines for infants have not been approved, but the findings from this study suggest that breast milk could be an alternative way for newborns to receive SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and provide further protection.

The research team hopes to further investigate their recent findings by isolating the different isoforms to determine which are most suitable for virus binding, and to assess whether breast milk and amniotic fluid prevent virus entry into cells.

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