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Lab Bench

Kaitlyn Zufall/MEDILL

UC Davis food scientist Bruce German's lab draws on expertise in lactation research to find beneficial similarities in bovine and human milks.

Milk could do a body good in developing countries

by Kaitlyn Zufall
Feb 27, 2013

Lab Equipment

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The Mass-Q-TOF, one of many pieces of advanced analytical equipment found in the Barile lab.

Mortality Rate Chart

Kaitlyn Zufall/MEDILL

Mortality rate of children under the age of 5 in deaths per 1,000 live births in 2006 according to UNICEF.

Children in developing countries who are dying from devastating intestinal diseases may be helped by promising research that is working with a very natural solution: milk.

The interdisciplinary study is funded with a $9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and involving researchers from various labs in the U.S. and abroad. At the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, researchers in multiple labs are working together to contribute to the project.

“The excitement- it’s huge,” said Daniela Barile, a food scientist at UC Davis. “We want to do something that people can actually use.”

One of the focuses of the Gates Foundation is enteric (gastrointestinal) and diarrheal diseases.

According to the foundation’s website, a main goal is to “eliminate the gap in mortality from enteric and diarrheal diseases between developed and developing countries and to significantly reduce impaired development associated with these diseases in children under age 5.”

The large number of children who don’t reach their fifth birthday is a matter of international concern.

As of 2006, 186 child deaths occurred for every 1,000 live births in West and Central African countries, an Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation reported. The same study found that the number was dramatically lower in industrialized countries: six deaths for every 1,000 live births.

According to UNICEF, “every child must be ensured the best start in life – their future, and indeed the future of their communities, nations and the whole world depends on it.”

The grant, entitled "Breast Milk, Gut Microbiome and Immunity Project," seeks to address intestinal diseases in young children that devastate communities in developing countries.

Professor Bruce German, a UC Davis food chemist and a member of the project’s research team, said that the children in these areas remain healthy while on mother's milk.

“When they wean they come into trouble,” German said.

Scientists believe that there is some property in human milk that provides the infants with this protection. The researchers seek to identify and isolate the molecules that provide this protection and identify similar components in bovine milk that could be given to children in order to improve the health in these poor areas.

At UC Davis, the target is oligosaccharides.

“So far, the oligosaccharides from mammalian milks are the best molecules to accomplish such a daunting and delicate task,” Barile said.

Oligosaccharides are a group of complex sugars that have been found to feed “good” bacteria while starving the “bad” bacteria in the body that can cause illness. This is an upgrade from antibiotics, which kill beneficial as well as the harmful bacteria.

These sugars escaped characterization until recently due to the extremely complex nature of the molecules and the low presence in mammalian milks other than human milk. It wasn’t until 2009 that Barile published the first paper about the discovery of the molecules in whey, the byproduct of the cheese-making process. 

Because of the complex nature of the oligosaccharides, biotechnology is not currently able to create the molecules in a lab, German said. That is why it is necessary to extract them from milk.

“It’s the complexity of the oligosaccharides that makes them work,” German explained. “We’re realizing more and more… biology is not necessarily improved or cured by simple solutions.”

The researchers are creating bioinformatics libraries containing detailed information on how to catalog the oligosaccharides from a variety of types of milk using advanced mass spectrometry. These libraries are available to everyone on the internet.
The researchers at the institute are collaborating within the larger interdisciplinary work of the Gates  grant. Professor David Mills is the lead investigator for the Foods for Health Institute’s involvement in the project.

“It’s not really the norm, but it’s increasing,” Mills said. “Science is becoming much more interdisciplinary… and this grant kind of typifies it.”

Each researcher’s lab is responsible for a different part of the process.

According to Barile, her lab is in charge of setting up the engineering and analytical tools necessary for the research.

“We are setting up all the tools to process, harvest all the ingredients [in the milk] before they’re lost,” she said.

German’s lab draws on its work with lactation research for its contributions.

“Our [part of] research is to provide the milk and lactation parts, both scientific and technological,” German said. “We provide ideas and samples from human milk.”

And they aren’t the only ones involved. Multiple other members of the institute are contributing their expertise, including Jennifer Smilowitz, the associate director of the Foods for Health Institute, whose post-doctoral studies focused on lactation.

And though the amount of teamwork is not quite traditional for the field, it’s producing results.

“We know that we will deliver these novel ingredients,” Barile said about the components that her lab is isolating. “We want to do it in [in the next] few months.”

German reported similar success and gave a lot of credit to the collaborative nature of the work.

“The combination of these multi-discipline scientists … we know so much,” German said. “It’s moving much faster than traditional science.”

The team is now in the second year of the four-year grant. By the end of the period, Mills hopes that the research will be ready for clinical trials. However, he said that a lot of testing has to be done before anything can be tested in humans.

But at this point, the research is promising and could lead to extremely practical results.

“The goal from the Gates Foundation is  to transfer this immediately,” Mills said. “We have kids dying. We want a solution now.”