Perth researchers are part of a world-first trial to harness the body's natural antibiotics to stop premature babies from getting deadly infections.
They hope to use infection-fighting proteins made by the body to boost breast milk given to pre-term babies.
The PMH Foundation, which provides more than $1 million of research grants to Princess Margaret Hospital annually, is paying for hospital medical staff to find out if antimicrobial proteins and peptides can improve the ability of immune cells to control and kill bacteria that commonly cause infections.
Researchers from the Centre for Neonatal Research and Education are working with neonatal experts from Harvard University and the University of Edinburgh on the study, which is due to finish by the end of next year.
Head researcher and neonatologist Tobias Strunk said the study would use blood samples from babies, including pre-term infants born at PMH and King Edward Memorial Hospital as well as healthy, full-term babies.
"Of the 170 babies born very pre-term every year in WA, up to 50 per cent of our smallest infants suffer from blood infections such as septicaemia during their first weeks of life," Dr Strunk said.
The long-term plan was to make the proteins cheaply in the same way as hormones and insulin so breast milk could be fortified with the immune-boosting proteins.