Can breast milk sugars win the war against superbugs?

The battle against antibiotic resistance is old news, yet it is ongoing. Scientists are always looking for new ways to fight superbugs. Now a team at Vanderbilt University have discovered a new weapon. They have discovered that carbohydrates in breast milk have the power to fight bacteria.

Two Pronged Attack

Previously scientists have concentrated on researching the proteins in mothers’ breast milk. It was believed that antibacterial properties were passed from mother to baby solely through these milk proteins. This new study, published in the ACS Infectious Diseases Journal, investigated carbohydrates, also known as oligosaccharides instead. They found that these sugars fight against bacteria in two ways. Firstly the bacteria is killed directly by these sugars. Secondly, the biofilms (a barrier bacteria makes to protect themselves when attacked) are also broken down.

 Group B Streptococcus (GBS)

One of the most serious infections in newborn babies is Group B Streptococcus (GBS). Some pregnant women host the bacteria and it can be deadly for babies, leading to pneumonia or sepsis. Luckily, many babies do not become infected. This is what prompted the research. Scientists questioned whether the pregnant mother made compounds which killed the bacteria, preventing infection.

The researchers took donor breast milk and isolated the oligosaccharides. They then added these to the Strep cultures in the lab. When examined under the microscope they discovered the “synthetic lethality“, or the two ways in which the sugars attack the bacteria as explained above.

Further Applications

Preliminary research shows these sugars are effective against other bacteria too.  The data shows that the antimicrobial activity extends to two of the ESKAPE pathogens which are associated with antibiotic resistance. In addition to this, the milk sugars can make bacteria more susceptible to common antibiotics such as erythromycin and penicillin.

Although there is a long way to go to utilise these findings it is a big step forward in the ongoing war against superbugs.

Related articles, Scientists fight back against Antibiotic Apocalypse. What you need to know.Sepsis: 6 Signs that could save a life.A 6 year old dancer almost dies after a simple infection. What do you need to know about sepsis?

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article edited for publication by Dr Hannah Arnstein

Images courtesy of pixabay

Sources and Further Reading

About hannaharnstein (13 Articles)
I am a psychiatry trainee working in the North East, but currently on maternity leave. Outside of medicine, other than writing I enjoy all things geek, baking and reading.

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