What is the history of your research into HMOs?
I first came into contact with HMOs in 1984 when researching alongside my supervisor who was very interested in glycoproteins, carotenoids and oligosaccharides. He had studied for his PhD under Richard Kuhn, the Austrian-German biochemical pioneer who classified HMOs via clinical trials for the first time in the 1950s. A whole variety of components in human breast milk were discovered at this time. It was interesting because there had been an observation by pediatricians in the early 1900s that the feces of breastfed babies were different to that of formula fed infants in terms of its microbiota. Following research, it was discovered that it was not the protein or fat component that was different, but the carbohydrate component.
So, what was the next step in the research?
The big problem until very recently was the ability to characterise and analyse in detail the components of the carbohydrates. The highly technical methods we can use now were not available fifty years ago, so they had to use classical chemical methods. My supervisor was the first one who was able to identify HMOs – it is due to my supervisor’s research that we know we have 150-200 different components.
For the past 20 years, there have been infant formulas available containing so-called prebiotics? Are these HMOs?
No, they are not. The prebiotics don’t have any structural similarities to human milk oligosaccharides.
But now, we can produce HMOs?
That is why it is so exciting now. We have seen huge progress in analytical methods – we can now analyse any component even if it is in very low amounts in the biological fluid. But the greatest advantage is that companies can produce at least some of the HMOs. For the very first time there is production of HMOs that are identical to those in human milk oligosaccharides.