- Short report
- Open Access
microRNA as a new immune-regulatory agent in breast milk
© Kosaka et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2010
- Received: 21 September 2009
- Accepted: 1 March 2010
- Published: 1 March 2010
Breast milk is a complex liquid that provides nutrition to the infant and facilitates the maturation of the infant's immune system. Recent studies indicated that microRNA (miRNA) exists in human body fluid. Because miRNAs are known to regulate various immune systems, we hypothesized that human breast milk contains miRNAs that may be important for the development of the infant's immune system.
We profiled miRNA expression in human breast milk and detected high expression levels of immune-related miRNAs in the first 6 months of lactation. Furthermore, these miRNA molecules are stable even in very acidic conditions, indicating that breast milk allows dietary intake of miRNAs by infants.
Our findings provide new insight into how breast milk can modulate the development of the infant's immune system. This study suggests the transfer of genetic material as miRNA from human to human occurs by means other than through sexual reproduction.
- Breast Milk
- miRNA Expression
- Human Breast Milk
- miRNA Microarray
- RNase Digestion
The mammary glands of mammals are specialized organs whose function is to produce milk, the primary source of nutrition for newborns. Breastfeeding is recognized as one of the most valuable contributors to infant health . Human breast milk protects infants not only against infections but also against chronic diseases. Furthermore, human breast milk contains certain growth factors that help the infant intestine to develop, become able to absorb milk and prepare for food intake. When maternal breast milk is unavailable, the alternative is infant formula. Compared with infants fed on formula, infants fed on breast milk have a lower incidence of digestive problems and are more likely to be protected against gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. Despite the fact that breastfeeding is known to be the best method for nourishing infants, how exactly breastfeeding works to provide the best nutrition and protect infants against disease is not fully understood.
Many immune-related substances are present in human breast milk, and their effects upon the recipient infants are widely recognized [2, 3]. For instance, human breast milk contains large quantities of secretory (s)IgA. These antibodies can bind to pathogens and prevent their attachment to an infant's cells. Furthermore, human breast milk contains measurable levels of leukocytes. In addition to these immunologic components, breast milk contains several nonspecific factors, such as lysozyme, lactoferrin and oligosaccharides, which have antimicrobial effects. Lysozyme inhibits the growth of many bacterial species by disrupting the proteoglycan layer of the bacterial cell wall. Lactoferrin, known as a multifunctional protein in human breast milk, also limits bacterial growth by removing essential iron and by stimulating cytokine production, and enhancing mucosal immunity, natural killer (NK) cell activity and macrophage cytotoxicity. Substantial amounts of oligosaccharides in the mammary gland were found in human breast milk, and these block attachment of microbes to an infant's mucosa, preventing infections. Nucleotides in human breast milk have been shown to enhance the immune function in infants . However, several additional immune regulatory components in milk may explain why breastfeeding can reduce infant mortality.
MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small regulatory RNA molecules that modulate the activity of specific mRNA targets and play important roles in a wide range of physiologic and pathologic processes [5–7]. Specific miRNAs that play important roles in a wide range of physiologic and pathologic processes in mammals may be involved in the control of immunologic reactions [6, 7]. A loss-of-function approach indicated that miRNAs are crucially involved in the in vivo control of immune regulation including cellular differentiation and immune response [8–10]. Recently, miRNAs have been found in serum, plasma and other body fluids [11–13]. Serum miRNAs can serve as potential biomarkers for the detection of various cancers and other diseases. Furthermore, it was reported that miRNAs circulate in plasma microvesicles in peripheral blood in healthy people . The majority of the plasma microvesicles from normal individuals are derived from blood cells. However, the physiologic roles of body fluid miRNAs are undetermined. In this report, we show that a considerable number of miRNAs, especially those that function in the immune system, are found in human breast milk. Furthermore, we detected a higher expression of immune-related miRNAs in the first 6 months of lactation. These miRNAs are stable even under harsh conditions. Our findings suggest that human breast milk contains miRNAs capable of transfer to immune cells to support the development of an infant's immune system.
Extraction of RNAs and expression analysis
Resistance and stability of miRNAs
The existence of RNase in body fluids is already known , and thus there should be no intact RNA present. The presence of miRNAs suggests that these miRNA species are resistant to RNase digestion. To prove this possibility, human breast milk was treated with RNase A/T.
Their stability was further studied after treatment under harsh conditions including freeze-thaw cycles and low pH. The samples were analyzed by quantitative reverse transcription (qRT)-PCR analysis.
Results of qRT-PCR analysis of miRNAs in human breast milk samples subjected to harsh conditions were not significantly different from samples not subjected to these conditions. As shown in Figure 3b, human breast milk miRNAs were resistant to several freeze-thaw cycles. Moreover, human breast milk miRNAs were stable when the milk was treated for 1 h in an acidic (pH 1) solution (Figure 3c).
Existence of microvesicles
Observation of the stability of human breast milk miRNAs in vitro suggests the possibility that they are contained within microvesicles or exosomes . To verify this, we isolated the CD63-positive exosome fraction and investigated miRNA expression.
As shown in Figure 3d, miR-181a and miR-17, which we detected by microarray analysis, were also detected in the CD63-positive exosome fraction. However, it is still possible that other miRNA protection mechanisms, such as an apoptotic body, may protect miRNA from harsh conditions.
Presence of miRNAs in other body fluids
It was previously reported that miRNAs are also detected in serum samples [11–13]. To investigate differences in miRNA expression in different body fluids, we analyzed expression of several immune-regulated miRNAs in human serum and human breast milk.
There are several reports in the literature showing the presence of miRNAs in body fluids including blood plasma/serum, saliva and urine [11–13]. These studies showed the usefulness of miRNAs as a biomarker for disease, but did not investigate any biologic function of the miRNAs in body fluid. Furthermore, because the function of breast milk is to provide nutrition to infants from mothers, miRNA could also have functions in an infant's body.
In our study, miRNAs in breast milk were stable even under very acidic conditions (pH 1). This suggests that these molecules can tolerate an infant's gastrointestinal environment and be absorbed in to the intestine, thus influencing the immune system, as the intestine is one of their major immune organs (Figure 3c). The storage and freeze-thawing of breast milk did not denature the miRNAs, a dietetically important finding for low-birthweight babies and other hospitalized infants who are usually given freezer-stored breast milk (Figure 3b). The resistance of the miRNAs to the RNase treatment indicated that the miRNAs in human breast milk might be packaged inside complexes such as exosomes or microvesicles (Figure 3a) [14, 15]. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 3d, we detected miR-181a and miR-17 in a CD63-positive fraction from human breast milk. A previous report suggested that breast milk-derived exosomes can increase the number of Foxp3+ CD4+ CD25+ regulatory T cells in infants . This is consistent with our results, showing that human breast milk is rich in T-cell-regulating miRNAs [17, 18]. Furthermore, human breast milk miRNAs may induce B-cell differentiation, because the milk is rich in miR-181 and miR-155, both known to induce B-cell differentiation [19, 20], but it is not rich in miR-150, which suppresses B-cell differentiation [21, 22]. Our miRNA microarray detected many different types of miRNAs in human breast milk (Figure 1c); however, the functions of many of these are still unknown. Because immune-related miRNAs are well studied and their functions are clarified in the present report, we focused on their presence in human breast milk in which we believe miRNAs should have many more functions, especially in immunologic conditions such as allergy, including atopy and asthma [23, 24].
All the women gave their signed informed consent to participate. The study was approved by Dr. Tadao Ishii, Manager of Morinaga Co., Ltd and the company's ethics committee (the Ethical Committee of Functional Food Creation).
Time of sample collection
Sample collection (months after birth)
6, 8, 8
4, 6, 7
6, 7, 8, 8
7, 7, 8, 9
4 samples within 1 month
2, 4, 10, 12
We chose the samples given <6 months after birth and samples given between 6 and 12 months after birth. Cells and large debris within the breast milk were removed by centrifugation at 2,000 × g for 10 min twice; the supernatant was then centrifuged at 12,000 × g for 30 min to remove cellular debris. The clear supernatants were used for the analysis.
Total RNA extraction
Total RNA from breast milk was extracted using a mirVana miRNA isolation kit (Ambion, Austin, TX, USA). Breast milk was thawed on ice, diluted with two volumes of mirVana Lysis/Binding Solution, mixed thoroughly by vortex for 30 s and incubated for 5 min. Then 1/10 volumes of miRNA homogenate additive was added, mixed thoroughly by vortex for 30 s and incubated on ice for 10 min. An equal volume of acid/phenol/chloroform (Ambion) was then added to each aliquot. The resulting solutions were mixed by vortex for 1 min and spun for 10 min at 10,000 × g. The resulting aqueous volume was mixed thoroughly with 1.25 volumes of 100% molecular-grade ethanol and passed through a mirVana column in sequential 700 μl aliquots. The column was washed according to the manufacturer's protocol, and RNA was eluted in nuclease-free water at 95°C. RNA extraction from the serum was performed using the same method.
To detect the expression of miRNAs in human breast milk, 70 ng of total RNA was labeled and hybridized using a Human microRNA Microarray Kit (Agilent Technologies) according to the manufacturer's protocol (Protocol for Use with Agilent Microrna Microarrays Version 1.5). Hybridization signals were detected by a DNA microarray scanner (Agilent Technologies), and the scanned images were analyzed using Agilent Feature Extraction software.
qRT-PCR of miRNA expression was performed using the TaqMan MicroRNA Assay (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA, USA), according to the manufacturer's protocol. To normalize the sample-to-sample variation in the RNA isolation step, synthetic Caenorhabtidis elegans miRNA cel-miR-39 (synthetic RNA oligonucleotides synthesized by Qiagen, Valencia, CA, USA) was added as a mixture of 25 fmol of each oligonucleotide in a total volume of 1 ml to each denatured sample (that is, after combining the breast milk and serum samples with Lysis Solution (mirVana miRNA isolation kit; Ambion). All experiments were repeated three times.
RNase and freeze-thawing treatment
To confirm that the miRNA is resistant to RNase digestion, human breast milk was treated with 10 U/ml RNase A and 400 U/ml RNase T1 (Ambion) for 60 min at 37°C. After these treatments, the RNA was extracted from the milk as described above.
To investigate the stability of miRNAs in human breast milk, the milk was subjected to three freeze-thaw cycles of at -20°C or treated for 3 h in a low pH solution (pH 1). miRNA levels were assessed by TaqMan qRT-PCR.
Isolation of CD63 positive exosome
Exosomes in human breast milk were specifically isolated by magnetic beads, using anti-CD63 antibody (BD, Erembodgem, Belgium). Human breast milk (0.3 ml) was incubated with anti-CD63 antibody (BD) or mouse IgG1 (Sigma-Aldrich, St Louis, MO, USA) coupled to magnetic microbeads (50 μl). These were mixed and incubated for 16 h at room temperature. The magnetic immune complexes were washed four times with 500 μl of PBS, then the RNA was extracted as described above.
Transmission electron microscopy
Clear supernatants from human breast milk were centrifuged at 100,000 × g for two hours, then washed in phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) and pelleted by ultracentrifugation (100,000 × g). The pellet was diluted in PBS. Resuspended exosomes were fixed in 1% glutaraldehyde in PBS (pH 7.4). The samples were stained for 10 min with 1% uranyl acetate. Excess fluid was removed with a piece of Whatman filter paper. All transmission electron micrographs were obtained using JEM1220 electron microscopy at 120 kv.
We thank Nami Kosaka and Kenji Kosaka for their help with these studies. We thank Dr T. Shinoda for providing serum samples. This work was supported in part by a Grant-in-Aid from the Third-Term Comprehensive 10-Year Strategy for Cancer Control from the Ministry of Health, Labour, Welfare of Japan (H21-001); the Program for Promotion of Fundamental Studies in Health Sciences of the National Institute of Biomedical Innovation (NiBio) (ID 05-31, 08-02); a Takeda Science Foundation grant, and a Grant for Research Fellowships from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for Young Scientists.
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