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New Technique for Rapid Analysis of Key Breast Milk Component

November 21, 2006

A new technique that enables rapid, detailed analysis of a group of bioactive molecules in breast milk has been developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Agilent Technologies.

Oligosaccharides are sugar-like molecules that are the third-largest solid component of breast milk, after lactose and lipids. More than 200 oligosaccharides have been identified in milk, but there has been no way to measure their presence in an individual sample in a single test or run. They do not have direct nutritional value, and their role in development is not clear.

A recent study published online in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry detailed the successful use of two analytical tools to identify oligosaccharides in samples from five women in single runs. The tools were a "glycan chip" developed by Agilent specifically for this purpose, and a time-of-flight mass spectrometer used to characterize each oligosaccharide by determining its molecular mass to a precision of two parts per million.

The researchers found large variations between women in the total numbers and abundance of different oligosaccharides, with the total number per individual varying from 33 to 124. Only a few oligosaccharides were common to all subjects.

The combination of techniques has enabled a more complete understanding of these complex oligosaccharides, said Carlito Lebrilla, professor of chemistry at UC Davis and lead author on the paper. The techniques could be extended to other glycan structures, with medical and therapeutic applications, he said.

The new technique paves the way for further research into oligosaccharide function in human development, said co-author Rudi Grimm, worldwide proteomics and metabolomics market development manager with Agilent's Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis (LSCA) group.

The other authors are Milady Ninonuevo, Youmie Park, Jinhua Zhang, Robert Ward, Brian Clowers, J. Bruce German, Samara Freeman of UC Davis; and Kevin Killeen and Hongfeng Yin of Agilent Labs. The research was supported in part by the California Dairy Research Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the CHARGE Study and a UC Discovery Grant.

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