Lacto-N-tetraose, fucosylation, and secretor status are highly variable in human milk oligosaccharides from women delivering preterm

J Proteome Res. 2012 Sep 7;11(9):4662-72. doi: 10.1021/pr3004979. Epub 2012 Aug 28.


Breast milk is the ideal nutrition for term infants but must be supplemented to provide adequate growth for most premature infants. Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are remarkably abundant and diverse in breast milk and yet provide no nutritive value to the infant. HMOs appear to have at least two major functions: prebiotic activity (stimulation of the growth of commensal bacteria in the gut) and protection against pathogens. Investigations of HMOs in milk from women delivering preterm have been limited. We present the first detailed mass spectrometric analysis of the fucosylation and sialylation in HMOs in serial specimens of milk from 15 women delivering preterm and 7 women delivering at term using nanohigh performance liquid chromatography chip/time-of-flight mass spectrometry. A mixed-effects model with Levene's test was used for the statistical analyses. We find that lacto-N-tetraose, a core HMO, is both more abundant and more highly variable in the milk of women delivering preterm. Furthermore, fucosylation in preterm milk is not as well regulated as in term milk, resulting in higher within and between mother variation in women delivering preterm vs term. Of particular clinical interest, the α1,2-linked fucosylated oligosaccharide 2'-fucosyllactose, an indicator of secretor status, is not consistently present across lactation of several mothers that delivered preterm. The immaturity of HMO production does not appear to resolve over the time of lactation and may have relevance to the susceptibility of premature infants to necrotizing enterocolitis, late onset sepsis, and related neurodevelopmental impairments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Milk, Human / chemistry*
  • Milk, Human / metabolism
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / metabolism
  • Oligosaccharides / analysis*
  • Oligosaccharides / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Premature Birth / metabolism*
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption-Ionization
  • Trisaccharides / analysis*
  • Trisaccharides / metabolism


  • Oligosaccharides
  • Trisaccharides
  • lacto-N-neotetraose
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid
  • 2'-fucosyllactose