UWA advancing research into mother, milk and infant triad

Researchers take a holistic approach to understanding how the environment, lifestyle, anatomy and genetics influence the mother, milk and infant triad.

Researchers at The University of Western Australia studying human lactation are taking a holistic approach to understand how the environment, lifestyle, anatomy and genetics influence the mother, milk and infant triad.

Professor Donna Geddes, director of the Human Lactation Research Group at University of Western Australia (UWA), said it is important to understand how all these factors impact a baby’s growth, health and development.

“Uniquely we are able to measure the amount of milk the mother makes and what the baby receives which helps unravel how milk components work – this is rare in other studies,” Professor Geddes said.

The researchers are able to measure many components in the milk, rather than just a few, which helps determine if the components interact with each other.

Components studied are human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) – a group of complex and diverse glycans that are resistant to gastrointestinal digestion and reach the infant colon as the first prebiotic – which are present at very high concentrations in human milk but not in infant formula.

“If the immune proteins in the milk kill ‘bad’ bacteria and the prebiotics (HMOs) feed the good bugs we also want to know if they are alive or dead,” Professor Geddes said.

“Aside from prebiotics, immune proteins are present in the milk that are highly antibacterial. This means the milk may kill some bacteria that may not be beneficial for the baby. Our group is unravelling which bugs in milk set up the babies gut microbiome for the best health outcomes.”

The researchers are also pioneering new ways to treat human milk for babies that need donor milk so any interactions by components in the milk are retained – in particular immune activity to support vulnerable sick or preterm babies.

The University’s research in the lactation field has been supported by a long-term research partnership with Medela, a global company based in Switzerland that provides leading research-based breast milk feeding and baby products, healthcare solutions and clinical education.

The collaboration celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021 and after being unable to celebrate the milestone in person due to COVID constraints, a Medela delegation including Michael Larsson, Chairman of the Board, Reto Larsson, Carsten Faltum, CTO and Dr Leon Mitoulas, Director of Medical Research, visited UWA and met with Vice Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Anna Nowak and Professor Geddes to commemorate the anniversary.