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Sugars in Breast Milk Found to Have Antibacterial Properties

Healthcare practitioners have longed encouraged new mothers to breastfeed their infants because breast milk has been shown to decrease infants’ risk of ear infections, asthma, and lower type 2 diabetes, among other conditions. Now, the results of a new study are providing more support for this practice, showing that the sugars in human breast milk can help protect babies from bacterial infections.

The proteins in human breast milk—which is a combination of proteins, fats, and sugars—have long been studied for their antibacterial properties; however, Steven Townsend, PhD, assistant professor, Chemistry, Vanderbilt University, and his team of chemists and doctors, decided to study the sugars. Dr. Townsend explained why, in a press release, “For most of the last century, biochemists have argued that proteins are most important and sugars are an afterthought. Most people have bought into that argument, even though there's no data to support it. Far less is known about the function of sugars and, as a trained glycoprotein chemist, I wanted to explore their role.”

For the pilot study, the researchers collected 5 samples of oligosaccharides, human milk carbohydrates, from several different donors. They profiled the samples using “a mass spectrometry technique that can identify thousands of large biomolecules simultaneously,” according to the press release. Afterwards, they added the samples to cultures of Group B strep bacteria—the leading cause of infections in newborns worldwide—and viewed the results under a microscope. Using this technique, the researchers found that the oligosaccharides are able to kill the bacteria as well as break down their biofilms. More specifically, they found that, “one sample nearly killed an entire strep colony,” one sample was moderately effective against the bacteria, and, “the remaining three samples exhibited a lower level of activity.” In addition, preliminary results from a follow-up study of 24 other samples has shown that, “two broke down the bacterial biofilms and killed the bacteria, for broke down the biofilms but did not kill the bacteria, and two killed the bacteria without breaking down the biofilms.”

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