July 3, 2018

(WINNIPEG, MB) The unique composition of a mother’s breastmilk may help to reduce food sensitization in her infant, according to new findings from the CHILD Study.

The research, published in the June issue of Allergy, found that a specific profile of complex sugars in human milk is associated with a lower rate of food sensitization in babies at one year of age. The findings offer further insight into the benefits of breastmilk for strengthening a baby’s immune system and reducing the risk of allergies later on.

In addition to lactose, which serves as an energy source, human milk contains more complex sugar molecules known as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).

“Our research has identified a ‘beneficial’ HMO profile that was associated with a lower rate of food sensitization in children at one year of age,” says lead researcher Dr. Meghan Azad, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Origins of Chronic Disease at the University of Manitoba, and research scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba (CHRIM).

“To our knowledge, this is the largest study to examine the association of HMOs and allergy development in infants, and the first to evaluate overall HMO profiles.”

The amount and composition of HMOs are highly variable between women, changing across different settings and populations. For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 421 infants and their mothers who are participating in CHILD Study.

At one year of age, the children underwent skin prick tests to check for allergic sensitization to common allergens, including certain foods. A positive skin prick test indicated “sensitization,” which can be an early sign of a future food allergy. Breast milk samples were analyzed in the Bode Laboratory, in the Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation Mother-Milk-Infant Center of Research Excellence (LRF MoMI CoRE) at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, using high-performance liquid chromatography.

The researchers found that 14% of infants were sensitized to one or more food allergens at one year of age. Although no individual HMO was associated with food sensitization, the overall HMO composition appeared to play a protective role. “This suggests that particular combinations of multiple HMOs are important for infant development,” said Dr. Kozeta Miliku, an AllerGen trainee and first author of the study.

There are several possible mechanisms by which HMOs may influence food sensitization, according to co-author Dr. Lars Bode, associate professor of pediatrics and Director of the LRF MoMI CoRE. “HMOs are bioactive molecules that feed good bacteria in the gut, helping to shape the infant gut microbiome,” he says. “Additionally, HMOs can boost the immune system and prevent harmful bacteria and toxins from adhering to the infant gut.”

“These findings are helping us to better understand the important functional properties of breastmilk,” adds Dr. Azad. “Our hope is that this study will guide future research to identify the maternal and environmental factors that promote a ‘beneficial’ HMO profile and to determine how these bioactive components in human milk contribute to the developmental programming and prevention of allergic disease.”