Breast milk is recognised for having antibodies that help boost a baby’s immune system and reduce the risk of many diseases.
Now adults could soon benefit from its protective effects through a new prebiotic supplement, reports the Daily Mail.
One Silicon Valley biotech start-up has plans to isolate the sugars that make breast milk so health-giving and turn them into a product marketed at infants and grown-ups alike.
It comes after scientists discovered last year that it was possible to create the first formula milk with human bacteria.
The firm behind the idea, Sugarlogix, based in Berkeley, California, believes it could create an immune-boosting superfood supplement that may be the next big health craze.
It’s hoped the sugars in a mother’s milk – now known to feed “good’ bacteria in infants” intestines – could be used to treat a host of conditions in adults which are increasingly linked to gut health, such as diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome.
The supplement could also potentially be used by mothers who struggle to breastfeed.
However, while there is unequivocal evidence on the benefits of breast milk for babies, the jury is largely out on whether it would offer the same for grown-ups.
Germ-fighting ‘good bacteria
Breastfeeding has long-term benefits for a baby, lasting right into adulthood, say NHS Choices.
A mother’s milk has been linked to lower chances of an infant getting tummy bugs and eczema, as well as developing type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
Scientists have discovered that its secret lies in complex sugars called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).
Previously thought to have no purpose because babies do not actually digest them, they have been found to encourage the growth of a beneficial bacteria called Bifidobacterium longum infantis in their guts.
These keep “bad” bacteria at bay and indeed have been found to be vital in combating infections like E.coli.
But not every woman can easily produce breast milk. Just a quarter of new mothers never attempt it and many find it too painful or difficult.
So naturally, these findings have caused a rush of companies hoping to synthesize and market the unique ingredients in breast milk.
Could it treat a host of diseases?
Tech website Gizmodo interviewed Kulika Chomvong, CEO of Sugarlogix.
“We were interested in prebiotics and we realized that the best type of prebiotics exist in nature, and that’s in human breast milk,” he said.
Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help keep your digestive system healthy by controlling growth of harmful bacteria.
Prebiotics, which are “non‐living” and resist digestion, “feed” the good bacteria in our gut helping them to grow and flourish.
Increasingly, research is emerging showing how poor gut health is linked to conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, obesity, childhood asthma, to colitis and colon cancer.
B. infantis, the bacteria that HMOs promotes in infants, has been found to be low in quantity in patients with type II diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome.
So businesses have their eye on a grander market beyond babies: breast milk for grownups.
Chomvong revealed that Sugarlogix plans to turn its powder-form sugars into a pill, that could be taken daily like you do with a multi-vitamin.
“This is the very first time adults can really harness the power of breast milk,” Chomvong said.
“We wanted to find the very first food for the gut that we ever received as babies, and that’s breast milk.”
Would it help adults?
HMOs appear to kick start a healthy gut in babies who are born with pristine gut microbiome, but would it work in the same way in adults, who already have thriving bacterial colonies?
Gizmodo sought the opinion of Michael Miller, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois who has studied human breast milk.
He argued the benefit of synthesizing sugars for infants is still not even clear, let alone for adults.
“Different mom’s milks will have different compositions. It’s too complex to fully replicate,” he told Gizmodo.
He said that while simple sugars found in breast milk can now make somewhat economically, researchers do not yet understand if the real benefit comes from the full complexity of ingredients it contains.