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The Power of Human Milk Oligosaccharides

Abbott has pioneered groundbreaking scientific research on human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), prebiotics previously found in breast milk, that have been shown to benefit formula-fed babies too.

Mom and baby cuddling
Jun 11 2017

With a perfect blend of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and other components that support a baby’s immune system, breast milk is the undisputed gold standard for infant nutrition. And within this nutritional powerhouse, there’s an unsung hero—human milk oligosaccharides.* Based on over 15 years of research, experts believe that it could be one of the factors behind breast milk’s immune system-boosting properties.

Until now, HMOs have only been found in breast milk, but thanks to Abbott’s cutting-edge research, even moms who choose to use formula can provide their babies with HMO too.  

What are HMOs?

Human milk oligosaccharides (pronounced ol·i·go·sac·cha·rides) are unique, non-digestible, complex carbohydrates with a prebiotic role; in other words they feed the healthy bacteria in our gut. They are the third most abundant component in breast milk (after fat and carbohydrate) and make up to 10 percent of breast milk. There’s even more HMO than protein!

“HMOs feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut where 70 percent of a baby’s immune system is found,” according to Rachael Buck, Ph.D., an Abbott research scientist and expert in immune health. “But what’s very special about HMOs is that they are also absorbed into the bloodstream. This is how they support the immune system beyond the gut,” she explains.

There are 150 different types of HMOs and the most abundant one in most mothers’ milk is 2'-Fucosyllactose or 2’-FL. As well as its prebiotic role, 2’-FL HMO is beneficial for babies’ gut and immune system development.

A Stronger Immune System

After researching HMOs for more than a decade, in 2010, Abbott scientists made a breakthrough and decided to focus their attention on the most abundant HMO, 2’-FL. Since then, Abbott has published 20 pre-clinical and clinical studies on 2’-FL.

In 2016, Abbott researchers compared the immune response of exclusively breastfed babies to that of babies who were exclusively fed formula with and without a structurally identical version of the 2’-FL HMO found in human milk.

After six weeks, researchers discovered that five immune markers were nearly identical between babies who were breastfed and those who were fed Similac with 2’-FL HMO.

The clinical study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that infants fed Similac infant formula supplemented with 2’-FL HMO had the prebiotic in their blood and urine similar to breast fed infants and the same rate of growth as breastfed infants.

“These are ground-breaking results because they show that babies fed the infant formula have an immune response more like breastfed infants,” Buck explains. “2’FL HMO helps support a baby’s immune system because it closes multiple gaps in immune function between formula-fed and breastfed babies.”

Also in 2016, Abbott launched the first and only infant formula with 2’-FL human milk oligosaccharides in the US. Adding HMO to the formula makes it closer to breast milk than ever before.  

A Healthy Gut

Not only do HMOs support the entire body’s immune system by starting in the gut, they may also directly affect gut health.  In fact, a study by Abbott shows that the HMOs support baby’s developing digestive system. The study found that the
presence of 2’-FL HMO has also been linked to a reduced risk of gut and
respiratory infections 1-3.

Nothing can replace breast milk, but for moms who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, or those who need to supplement, an infant formula with 2’-FL HMO is one step closer to closing the gap.

“We want to give parents choices and ensure that even formula babies have the strongest possible start in life,” Buck says.
 

*not from human milk
References:
1. Castanys-Munoz E, et al. 2’-fucosyllactose: an abundant, genetically determined soluble glycan present in human milk. Nutr Rev. s2013;71(12):773-89.
2. Stepans MB, et al. Early consumption of human milk oligosaccharides is inversely related to subsequent risk of respiratory and enteric disease in infants. Breastfeed Med. 2006;1:207-215.
3. Bode L. Human milk oligosaccharides: every baby needs a sugar mama. Glycobiology. 2012;22(9):1147-62.