Human Milk Sugars Can Kill Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, Says Research

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breast milk sugars

We all know that human breast milk is every newborn's first line of defense against a wide host of fatal infections and diseases.

But a new research has just arrived that shows that the protective properties of human milk is not just restricted to the immunity boosting effects of its proteins.

Conducted by a team of expert scientists at the Vanderbilt University, the research focused on the never-studied-before properties of human milk sugars and found that they are effective against antimicrobial resistant strains of Group B Streptococci responsible for fatal neonatal infections like pneumonia, sepsis, and meningitis.

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Unexplored Territory Finally Explored!

While most research on human milk has always focused on the incredible benefits of breastfeeding and its immunoglobulins (a form of protein), no research has ever been done before on the carbohydrate component of breast milk.

That's why the researchers at Vanderbilt, led by Dr. Steven Townsend, a specialist in glycoprotein chemistry, were interested in exploring the function of sugars in human milk.

To study this, the team collected 5 different samples of breast milk from volunteer mothers, and then extracted milk oligosaccharides from them, which they then identified with mass spectrometry.

These sugar compounds were finally introduced in thriving communities of Group B Streptococci to study the effect of milk sugars on the bacteria.

And the results observed were astonishing.

While all the human milk samples could not kill off the bacterial cultures, 2 samples were effective in disrupting the aggregated bacterial clumps (called biofilm), which is how Streptococci protect itself from antibiotic attack.

human milk sugar

Left: Biofilm of Streptococci. Right: Clumps destroyed by breast milk.

(Source: Steven Townsend/Vanderbilt)

So the researchers decided to test the effectiveness of breast milk in destroying bacterial colonies when used along with antimicrobial peptides found in human saliva. And they found that once the milk sugars succeeded in disrupting the bacterial biofilm, the antibiotic had a much easier time killing off the bacteria.

A discovery that is the first link in overcoming the challenge posed by antibiotic resistant strains of microbes.

The Rise of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria And Why It Is A Cause For Serious Concern

antimicrobial resistance

Whenever we fall sick and consume an antibiotic, the drug succeeds in destroying more than 90% of the microbial infection, thus, helping our immune system develop immunity against that particular strain of microbe.

Unfortunately, some microbes manage to fend off this antibiotic attack because of superior genes, which they then pass on to their progeny.

Over time when the number of such antibiotic-resistant strains build up in our community, they start producing diseases that common drugs fail to cure.

A condition called drug-resistance that is responsible for an estimated 23,000 deaths around the world every year, and which is believed to rise mainfolds as the indiscriminate use of over-the-counter antibiotics keeps rising around the world.

Given these dire circumstances, the discovery of the biofilm-disrupting function of breast milk sugars is a monumental one.

The Next Step

The discoveries of this new research has created hope within the medical community who believe that one day these milk sugars can protect the entire human race, not just babies. But for now, we can just wait and watch.

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