Complex Milk Sugars Offer Therapeutic Potential to Treat Childhood Malnutrition

complex milk sugars

Foods for Health Institute researchers are part of an important paper published in Cell this month, offering novel approaches to address childhood malnutrition through nourishing gut microbes with milk compounds.

UC Davis faculty David Mills (Peter J. Shields Chair of Dairy Food Science and Professor of Viticulture and Enology), Carlito Lebrilla (Distinguished Professor of Chemistry), Kay Dewey (Distinguished Professor of Nutrition) and Daniela Barile (Associate Professor and Chemist in Food Science and Technology) co-authored “Sialylated Milk Oligosaccharides Promote Microbiota-Dependent Growth in Models of Infant Undernutrition” in Cell with Jeffrey Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of Washington University’s Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, and with Gordon’s graduate student Mark Charbonneau as the primary author.

The article addresses the relationship between human milk oligosaccharides (complex milk sugars) and the growth phenotypes of infants. Graduate students Jasmine Davis and Sarah Totten in Carlito Lebrilla’s lab identified differences in the sialylated oligosaccharides in milk from Malawian mothers whose children remained healthy from those who became malnourished and exhibited stunting. Adding sialylated bovine milk oligosaccharides to the traditional Malawian diet in a germ-free mouse model resulted in growth and metabolic changes indicative of improved nutrient utilization.

“This shows what you can do when you study milk and how it is supposed to shape the gut microbiota,” said David Mills. 

Mills casts this successful publication as the culmination of nearly fifteen years of research by FFHI faculty. Beginning with their first grant in 2004, Mills, Lebrilla, and Bruce German (Professor of Food, Science, and Technology and Director of the Foods for Health Institute), explored the components of mammalian milk in order to understand the unique evolutionary relationship between infants and their mother’s milk.

Organized under a research program at FFHI, Mills, Lebrilla, German, and Barile specialized in the study of human and bovine milk oligosaccharides and glycans – the largely indigestible milk molecules which act as a food source for the infant’s intestinal microbiota that colonizes the gastrointestinal tract. Work in their labs revealed the specific composition and structures of these compounds and established their function as a selective food source for specific beneficial bacterial species.

This expertise drew the attention of Jeffrey Gordon, who, in 2012, recruited the FFHI team to partner in a successful $9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on infant malnutrition. Foods for Health Institute-affiliated researchers were selected to investigate whether molecules from cow’s milk can help to protect children from the devastating effects of intestinal diseases, in the same way that breast milk often does.

Through a partnership with Hilmar Cheese, FFHI researchers obtained specific sialylated bovine milk oligosaccharides for Malawian infant malnutrition study that suggest a promising approach to diet-based interventions to treat undernutrition.

In UC Davis news coverage of the publications, Gordon notes “current ‘ready-to-use’ therapeutic foods have reduced mortality from malnutrition, but these children continue to show lingering long-term effects, including stunted growth, impaired neurodevelopment and dysfunctional immune systems,” Gordon said. The contributions from FFHI researchers helped to provide dramatic and promising changes in the treatment of infant malnutrition.

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