Potential anti-inflammatory and anti-infectious effects of human milk oligosaccharides

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2008;606:455-65. doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-74087-4_18.


There is increasing evidence of the local effects within the gastro intestinal tract and the systemic functions of human milk oligosaccharides (HMO). In addition to the vast majority of in vitro data, animal studies underline the high potential of HMO to influence very different processes. HMO probably influence the composition of the gut microflora through effects on the growth of bifidus bacteria. Whether the concomitant low number of pathogenic microorganisms in breastfed infants is also caused by HMO is an intriguing question that still has yet to be proven. Due to the similarity of HMO to epithelial cell surface carbohydrates, an inhibitory effect on the adhesion of pathogens to the cell surface is most likely. If this could be shown in humans, HMO would provide a new way to prevent or treat certain infections. It would also indicate supplementing infant formula based on cow's milk with HMO, as those oligosaccharides are either not detectable or present only in low numbers in bovine milk. As some HMO can be absorbed and circulate in blood, systemic effects may also be influenced. Due to their similarities to selectin ligands, HMO have been tested in in vitro studies demonstrating their anti-inflammatory abilities. For example, it has been shown that sialic acid-containing oligosaccharides reduce the adhesion of leukocytes to endothelial cells, an indication for an immune regulatory effect of certain HMO. We cover these topics after a short introduction on the structures of HMO, with a particular emphasis on their blood group and secretor specificity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bifidobacterium / drug effects
  • Bifidobacterium / metabolism
  • Cell Adhesion / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes / drug effects
  • Lewis Blood Group Antigens
  • Milk, Human / chemistry*
  • Milk, Human / enzymology
  • Oligosaccharides / blood
  • Oligosaccharides / chemistry
  • Oligosaccharides / immunology*
  • Oligosaccharides / pharmacology*


  • Lewis Blood Group Antigens
  • Oligosaccharides