Sugars, In Addition To Proteins, Help to Give Mother’s Milk Their Antibacterial Properties 

It is common knowledge that mother’s milk is usually the best thing for a newborn, as it contains a very complex and continually changing blend of proteins, sugar, fats, and also natural antibiotics.  Scientists have long focused on this final aspect—the antibiotic properties—when researching the proteins in mother’s milk.

Lately, though, an interdisciplinary team of doctors and chemists from Vanderbilt University has found that is not just the proteins in mother’s milk which provide these antibacterial benefits:  the carbohydrates may possess them too.

As a matter of fact the carbohydrates in mother’s milk also appear to be effective in enhancing the strength of the proteins present.  Specifically, the researchers wanted to investigate potential methods for reducing exposure to and infection from Group B Strep, the leading cause of severe infection in newborns around the world.

According to study leader Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Steven Townsend, “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.”

Obviously, this research comes at an important time, as the medical industry continues to address the rising problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Indeed, the United State Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths every year.

Townsend goes on to say, “We started to look for different methods to defeat infectious bacteria. For inspiration, we turned to one particular bacteria, Group B Strep. We wondered whether its common host, pregnant women, produces compounds that can either weaken or kill strep, which is a leading cause of infections in newborns worldwide.”

Thus, the researchers sopped looking for the proteins in human milk that have antimicrobial properties. Instead, Townsend’s team started to look at sugars, something that have long been far more difficult to study.

Townsend continues, “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.”

The results of this study have been published in the ACS Infectious Diseases journal under the title: “Human Milk Oligosaccharides Exhibit Antimicrobial and Anti-Biofilm Properties Against Group B. Streptococcus.”

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