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Annu Rev Nutr. 2005;25:37-58.

Human milk glycans protect infants against enteric pathogens.

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1
Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, Massachusetts 02129-4404, USA. dnewburg@partners.org

Abstract

Breastfed infants have lower morbidity and mortality due to diarrhea than those fed artificially. This had been attributed primarily to the secretory antibodies and prebiotic factors in human milk. Oligosaccharides are the third largest component of human milk. They were initially considered to be functionless by-products of glycoprotein and glycolipid synthesis during milk production. However, in the past few decades it has become apparent that the human milk oligosaccharides are composed of thousands of components, at least some of which protect against pathogens. Oligosaccharide protection against infectious agents may result in part from their prebiotic characteristics, but is thought to be primarily due to their inhibition of pathogen binding to host cell ligands. Most human milk oligosaccharides are fucosylated, and their production depends on enzymes encoded by the genes associated with expression of the Lewis blood group system. The expression of specific fucosylated oligosaccharides in milk thus varies in relation to maternal Lewis blood group type, and is significantly associated with the risk of infectious disease in breastfed infants. Specific fucosylated moieties of oligosaccharides and related glycoconjugates (glycans) are able to inhibit binding and disease by specific pathogens. This review presents the argument that specific glycans, especially the oligosaccharides, are the major constituent of an innate immune system of human milk whereby the mother protects her infant from enteric and other pathogens through breastfeeding. The large input of energy expended by the mother in the synthesis of milk oligosaccharides is consistent with the human reproductive strategy of large parental input into rearing relatively few offspring through a prolonged period of maturation. These protective glycans may prove useful as a basis for the development of novel prophylactic and therapeutic agents that inhibit diseases caused by mucosal pathogens.

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