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Case Studies

Researching the role of breast milk in a healthy adult gut

Supplements of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), the sugars found in breast milk, may help improve the gut health of adults, according to new research carried out with the assistance of the NRP Biorepository.

Using highly advanced “gut-on-chip” technology, researchers at the Quadram Institute showed that the fermentation products of HMOs made the gut lining less “leaky.” A leaky intestinal barrier has been linked to gut conditions such as coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome as well as a range of conditions affecting the rest of the body. This research provides scientific evidence that HMOs may be used to develop strategies to counter these conditions and improve gut health in adults.

We know human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) found in breast milk shape the healthy gut microbiota of infants. But the potential for manufactured HMOs to improve digestive health of adults, and the likely mechanisms involved, are not yet fully understood.

HMOs are a family of over two hundred different, highly complex, undigestible sugars found naturally in breast milk. Recent breakthroughs in commercial production techniques have meant that they can now be manufactured through industrial fermentation processes.

The research collaboration between Prof. Nathalie Juge’s team at the Quadram Institute, and three industry partners[i]ProDigest, Glycom, (part of DSM since April 2020); and Emulate Inc., has demonstrated that, in addition to encouraging beneficial Bifidobacterium species, two manufactured HMOs, 2′-fucosyllactose (2’FL) and lacto-N neotetraose (LNnT), also modulated adult immune function by making the gut barrier less ‘leaky’. This confirms the potential for HMOs to provide health benefits in adults as well as infants.

Dr Tanja Šuligoj working with gut-on-chips in the Quadram Institute

Dr Tanja Šuligoj working with gut-on-chips in the Quadram Institute

Using advanced gut-on-chip models at the Quadram Institute with organoids derived from colonic biopsies (colon intestinal gut organoid-on-chips; biopsy material from healthy endoscopy patient volunteers at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), donated via the Norwich Research Park Biorepository; cultured under conditions that recreated the gut epithelial structure and function, following Emulate’s technology. Using these models, the research team demonstrated that the two manufactured HMOs provided by Glycom supported growth of beneficial gut bacteria in the adult microbiota, modulated immune function, and improved gut barrier function.