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Studying how maternal immune factors shape infant health

Immunologist Dr. Megan Koch named 2020 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences
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Dr. Meghan Koch was named a 2020 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center immunologist Dr. Meghan Koch has been named a 2020 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. Koch and 21 other members of the 2020 class join a community of over 1,000 scientists chosen to receive this prestigious award from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is given to young investigators of outstanding promise who are working to advance human health. Scholars receive $300,000 over four years.

Working in mice, she will study how maternal immune proteins in breast milk interact with a mouse pup’s developing immune system and gut microbiome to shape growth and long-term health. Koch previously showed that immune proteins known as antibodies, which are passed through breast milk, support proper growth of infant mice. Supported by Pew, she plans to extend these findings to incorporate investigations into the interactions between maternal antibodies and the developing infant immune system, microbiome and metabolism.

“My goal is to expand my research focus outside my comfort zone to incorporate a more comprehensive view of host health,” Koch said. Pew’s support for big ideas is making this possible and has helped her grow her research program.

Shaping health beyond nutrition

Koch showed that maternal antibodies in breast milk are important factors that help ensure proper infant growth. She found that mice born to mothers that can’t produce antibodies grow more slowly than mice born to mothers who pass antibodies to their pups during nursing.

These findings echo epidemiological research in people which suggests that breastfeeding may have lifelong health effects. Studies have linked breastfeeding to a range of effects, from a subtle bump in IQ to reduced cholesterol in adults.

“The field has understood that these associations exist, but it's been very unclear what's driving these long-term impacts on health,” Koch said.

Her goal is to reveal the factors in breast milk that shape infant health both short term and long term, and understand how they do it. Such findings could help improve formula such that it provides similar benefits. Her own work suggests that breast milk’s importance extends beyond nutrition and that antibodies could be a key component of its health-promoting effects.

Setting the stage for long-term health

Koch works at the interface of the maternal immune system, the infant immune system and the developing infant microbiome. Scientists continue to reveal more about the health-promoting effects of the right microbial mix, which ensures proper nutrient absorption and influences both physical and mental health.

At the same time that infants begin ingesting breast milk, their intestinal tracts are being colonized by a rush of bacteria. Their nascent immune systems are also learning friend from foe, starting with the new microbes.

“Maternal antibodies are mediating the first host-microbiota interactions and helping to set the stage in the intestine,” she explained.

In this role, maternal antibodies may help determine which species of bacteria colonize the infant intestinal tract as well as “teach” the infant’s immune cells how to respond properly to the bacteria they’re encountering. Her previous work suggested that maternal antibodies help keep infant immune cells from overreacting to gut bacteria. As a Pew Scholar, she plans to use mice to study how maternal antibodies influence the complex ecosystem inside the gut and whether their effects on infant growth are mediated through specific microbial species.

Koch will also explore how maternal antibodies help shape infant immune responses and whether this has metabolic consequences that can influence growth. Though her initial studies focus on infancy, her goal is to understand how these interactions can influence health throughout life.

“I want to build a comprehensive view of health that we can apply to other questions that don't necessarily have to do with maternal antibodies but could have to do with other early life events,” Koch said. “The more we understand about the basic biology of how health is set up early in life, the more we could do to proactively promote practices or develop therapies.”

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

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Last Modified, June 16, 2020