Page last updated at 02:21 GMT, Sunday, 14 December 2008

Baby milk that could prevent eczema

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Janet, daughter Sarah and partner James Edralin
Janet wants to protect her children

Janet Askargaliyeva and her family are plagued by allergies.

She has an allergy to grass pollen and often finds it difficult to sleep because of nasal congestion.

Her brother and his children also suffer from a variety of allergy related conditions, including eczema.

So Janet is determined to do everything possible to prevent her second child, due this month, having the same health problems.

This is why the 34-year-old London secretary has signed up for a new trial at St Mary's Hospital, part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which is trialling hypoallergenic formula milk in a bid to try to prevent allergies in babies.

Janet intends to breastfeed until she goes back to work after three months, and also plans to express some milk to build up stores.

However, like many mothers, she might need to turn to formula milk eventually and is keen to make sure that if she does, then it is the best version possible for her child's health.

"I was just looking for anything I could do to help or to protect my little one," she said.

The new study, called PATCH, will trial the milk formula with babies at risk of developing allergies to see how it influences the development of eczema.

Breastfeeding promoted

All the mothers in the trial will be encouraged to breastfeed, but those who decide to use formula before four months will either be offered the new hypoallergenic milk or a placebo.

Paediatrician Dr Bob Boyle said the international trial hopes to recruit about 1,200 pregnant women in total - 50 of these at St Mary's.

"Basically the PATCH study is trying to find the next best way to feed infants apart from breastfeeding and how to control allergies," he said.

"We know that a significant proportion of women do introduce formula within the first few months of life in this part of the world and we believe this increases the risk of allergic symptoms, compared to exclusive breastfeeding.

"So we are trying to find a formula that will reduce the negative impact of introducing formula early.

Breastfeeding baby
The study will not suggest the formula be used instead of breastfeeding

"We are not suggesting that this formula might be better than breast milk and we are making that quite clear in the study."

Dr Boyle said eczema often does not develop until the second year of life - but about 70% of cases become apparent by the time a child is 18 months old.

For that reason, the study will follow up the children taking part in the study regularly until they reach 18 months.

However, the team believe it is the first few months of feeding that are likely to be crucial.

Easier to digest

The new formula contains prebiotics, natural compounds found in breast milk that encourage healthy bacteria to develop in the gut and help prevent allergies.

It also contains pre-digested proteins, rather than whole proteins, which are broken down into smaller pieces, making them easier to digest.

John Collard, clinical director of Allergy UK, welcomed the research.

"It is well established that exclusive breastfeeding for four to six months reduces the risk of allergy and this should be the aim," he said.

"However, not every mum is able to breastfeed and using normal formula feeds can increase the chances of allergy developing in children from allergic families.

"We welcome any research into formula milks which could be used to follow on from breastfeeding, or in place of it, and which could reduce the risk of allergy in these children."

Anyone interested in taking part in the trial should contact Suzan Jeffries, research midwife on 0207 886 7611 or 07872 850262.

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