Human breast milk is full of complex sugars that help build babies’ immune systems. Researchers believe those compounds may help adults with Crohn’s disease, arthritis, even autism, and may be the key to prevention someday.
When Sharon Young heard scientists were collecting breast milk for health research, she was all in. She was breast-feeding her daughter at the time.
Young said, “I wanted to learn more first and foremost scientifically, about human oligosaccharides for research in general. But I also wanted to contribute as a mom.”
At UC San Diego Health Sciences, researchers are working to isolate small amounts of human milk oligosaccharides or HMOs in donated breast milk. Sara Moukarzel, PhD, a Nutrition and Education Researcher at UC San Diego School of Medicine and professor Lars Bode say the synthesized molecules will then be used to fight immune disorders, viral and bacterial pathogens, and chronic inflammation in animal and cell cultures.
Moukarzel said, “We’re making a lot of parallels from infant nutrition up to adulthood and trying to find what ways where we can use the compounds to treat adult disorders.”
She foresees recreating the HMOs in powder form in the lab, making it easy to take as a pill or in a drink.
“The scientific challenge is to identify which HMOs or sets of HMOs are appropriate for specific disease conditions,” said Moukarzel.
Moukarzel says since the HMOs are safe for babies, they should be safe for adults. That should shorten the human testing phase and get to the public sooner.
Moukarzel believes the HMOs could be out of trials and available in about five years. Some of the conditions they could treat include obesity, Crohn’s disease, cardiovascular disease, even outbreaks of bacterial infections like norovirus.