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Sugars in Breast Milk Found to Have Antibacterial Properties

When speaking about the results of the studies in the press release, Dr. Townsend said, “Our results show that these sugars have a one-two punch. First, they sensitize the target bacteria and then they kill them. Biologists sometimes call this 'synthetic lethality' and there is a major push to develop new antimicrobial drugs with this capability.”

The researchers were also able to show that, “sugars' ability to break down biofilms can also enhance the effectiveness of the other antimicrobial agents that breast milk contains, by dosing strep cultures with a mixture of milk sugars and antimicrobial peptides from human saliva.”

Additional follow-up studies have shown that the sugars in human breastmilk also show antimicrobial activity against 2 of the 6 ESKAPE pathogens, which are Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and the Enterobacter species, according to the press release. These pathogens are the leading cause of nosocomial infections around the world.

Speaking about the implications of this research in the press release, Dr. Townsend remarked, “This is the first example of generalized, antimicrobial activity on the part of the carbohydrates in human milk. One of the remarkable properties of these compounds is that they are clearly non-toxic, unlike most antibiotics."

For future research, Dr. Townsend will be working with his, “colleagues in Vanderbilt's Mass Spectrometry Research Center to identify the specific types of carbohydrate molecules responsible for the antibacterial effects they have discovered.”

The results of the study were presented at the annual American Chemical Society meeting in Washington, DC, on August 20, 2017.
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