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Sugars in breast milk help prevent infections in newborns

Human breast milk can help treat infections in newborn babies, according to new research from the American Chemical Society. The researchers found that human milk oligosaccharides, sugar molecules found in breast milk, protect against bacteria known as group B Streptococcus (GBS) – a common cause of blood infections in newborns. 

The experts report that human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) may ultimately replace antibiotics for treating infections in infants and adults.

“Our lab has previously shown that mixtures of HMOs isolated from the milk of several different donor mothers have antimicrobial and antibiofilm activity against GBS,” said Rebecca Moore,  a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Steven Townsend at Vanderbilt University. 

“We wanted to jump from these in vitro studies to see whether HMOs could prevent infections in cells and tissues from a pregnant woman, and in pregnant mice.” 

The CDC reports that about 2,000 babies in the U.S. get GBS each year, and up to six percent do not survive the infection. The bacteria can be transferred from mother to baby during delivery. 

The incidence of late-onset infections, which happen from one week to three months after birth, is higher in formula-fed infants. This indicates that factors in breast milk could help protect against GBS. 

The investigation was focused on the effects of HMOs on GBS infection in placental immune cells called macrophages.

“We found that HMOs were able to completely inhibit bacterial growth in both the macrophages and the membranes, so we very quickly turned to looking at a mouse model,” explained Moore. 

“In five different parts of the reproductive tract, we saw significantly decreased GBS infection with HMO treatment.”

“We concluded that GBS is producing lactic acid that inhibits growth, and then when we add the oligosaccharide, the beneficial species can use it as a food source to overcome this suppression.”

According to the researchers, the reason HMOs can treat and prevent GBS infection is likely two-fold: they act as an anti-adhesive by preventing pathogens from sticking to tissue surfaces and forming a biofilm, and they possibly serve as a prebiotic by supporting the growth of good bacteria.

“HMOs have been around as long as humans have, and bacteria have not figured them out. Presumably, that’s because there are so many in milk, and they’re constantly changing during a baby’s development,” said Dr. Townsend. 

“But if we could learn more about how they work, it’s possible that we could treat different types of infections with mixtures of HMOs, and maybe one day this could be a substitute for antibiotics in adults, as well as babies.”

The research was presented at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society, ACS Fall 2021.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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