Human breast milk may hold potential to cure range of diseases by manipulating gut microbiome, study reveals
12 Aug 2022 --- Research published in the Journal of Cell Host & Microbe is furthering interest in human breast milk and its therapeutic applications for the gut microbiome. Opening the door to a new field of scientific discovery, the findings suggest potential therapeutic benefits for microbiome imbalances and other diseases.
The publication comes as the US-based National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) seeks to explore bioactive ingredients for infant formula.
NutritionInsight speaks with Gregory J. McKenzie, co-author of the study and VP for product innovation at Prolacta Bioscience, and Ashley Vargas, program director, Precision Nutrition and Dietetics at the NICHD.
“Human milk oligosaccharides (HMO) specifically, feed B. infantis in the gut. This therapeutic (B. infantis + HMO) has potential for many diseases that are influenced by an imbalance in the microbiome,” says McKenzie.
“We show evidence that the presence of B. infantis driven by the presence of HMO, has a positive influence on the microbiome community, which we think has great potential to shift unbalanced communities that result from many different health conditions to a more balanced and healthful state,” he explains.
The natural cure
The targeted diseases were intestinal graft-versus-host disease, Crohn’s, diabetes, and other gut dysbiosis disorders. The findings suggest a potential for human breast milk as a treatment for both infants and adults.
“This is how nature has been doing it for 200 million years. By using the body’s substances to heal itself and create a healthy microbiome, we can potentially avoid treatments that often come with severe side effects and instead develop gentler, more effective live biotherapeutic products to improve patients’ health,” says McKenzie.
“Human milk is recommended as the sole source of nutrition for infants up to about six months of age. However, only about 25% of infants in the US meet this objective of exclusive breastfeeding, making access to a safe and effective source of nutrition provided by infant formula critical for children and families,” says Vargas.
Future steps for formula shortage
Another essential aspect to consider is the US infant formula shortage. Driven by external shocks and market monopoly, the nation has been dependent on foreign exports and is still working to fill the empty shelves.
Vargas explains that research on bioactive ingredients could help to prevent future shortages. However, since such research is time-consuming, “it is unlikely that the ongoing research will have an immediate effect on the current shortage – other than raising awareness of the continued need for this sort of research,” she notes.
“Advances in research to produce bioactive ingredients more quickly and cost-effectively could perhaps help prevent future shortages caused by lack of that ingredient. Studies with longer-term follow-up of participants to determine if all bioactive ingredients are necessary for use in infant formula could potentially reduce the complexity of making infant formula and aid in preventing future shortages,” Vargas notes.
“While addressing the practical, logistical, and safety issues associated with such shortages falls outside of NICHD’s purview, shortages in infant and child formula are indeed a public health concern, and we are supportive of efforts to prevent future recurrences.”
Human milk components
The NICHD hosted a workshop in the previous year and highlighted the human milk components Lactoferrin, Milk Fat Globule Membrane (MFGM), Osteopontin, immune factors, and oligosaccharides.
“The field is still learning about the fascinating complexity of human milk, which serves as the reference for infant formula and the source of ideas for bioactive ingredients that could be included in infant formula,” says Vargas.
In the study, 62 healthy adults participated. McKenzie highlights the important finding of “introducing B. infantis into healthy adult microbiomes without first ‘making space’ by killing off existing microbes with antibiotics.”
“Specifically by including HMO as the unique food source for this species and were able to show that as long as HMO was continuously provided, B. infantis joined the community, or engrafted, at high levels. And then, similar to when infants are weaned from breast milk when adults were no longer provided with HMO, B. infantis disappeared, making this a reversible treatment,” he adds.
“We were able to recapitulate these results in a mouse model and establish B. infantis in both infant and imbalanced human microbiomes, in addition to healthy adult microbiomes. Finally, we presented evidence that B. infantis can feed other beneficial members of the microbiome, producing butyrate – a molecule made in healthy microbiomes that both train the immune system and improve gut barrier function,” McKenzie concludes.
By Beatrice Wihlander
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