Following its acquisition of Danish HMO innovator Glycom at the start of 2020, DSM is forging ahead with HMO research to support the development of infant nutrition products. As well as producing new synthetic HMOs, the Dutch multinational is leading projects to determine how the different structures of HMOs define their functionality and which HMO combinations and ratios are most beneficial for infant nutrition.
Talking exclusively to Nutraingredients, Louise Vigsnaes, Head of Biology at DSM/Glycom, said: “The beauty of HMOs is that each one is structurally different, and bound in with that structure is their functionality and how they can impact the infant’s health. We want to better our understanding of HMOs and what they can do in terms of modes of action and impacts.”
Vigsnaes said that the most common questions customers ask about HMOs are what the different structures mean for functionality: “Is one structure better than another? How should we combine these different structures and in what ratios should we combine them? These are the questions our customers are asking and it is this knowledge about doses and ratios that we are missing.”
What are HMOs?
Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs) are the third most abundant component of breast milk (after fat and lactose) and are considered essential nutrients for optimal infant growth and development. These carbohydrate structures act as prebiotics, supporting the developing digestive system, creating a well-balanced microbiota, offering protection from infections and providing immune system support.
Glycom, founded in 2005 and headquartered in Hørsholm, Denmark, has pioneered the development and commercialisation of HMOs for infant formula. The company is the world’s largest supplier in volume terms, with sales predominantly generated with Nestlé under a long term contract.
Clinical trials have linked the inclusion of synthetic HMOs in infant nutrition with several positive health outcomes: immune biomarkers similar to that of breast-fed infants, a shift in the gut microbiota closer to that of breast-fed infants and reduced morbidity and antibiotic use.
An ingredient in its infancy
Scientists already know that there are at least 150 structurally different HMOs in human breast milk and that not all HMOs perform the same role – their function is determined by their structure.
DSM/Glycom’s portfolio includes two HMO classes approved for use in infant formula and foods: 2’FL (2’Fucosyllactose) and LNnT (Lacto-N-neotetraose). Both HMOs have gone through the novel food safety assessment in Europe with a positive outcome and approval by the European Commission.
Asked why DSM/Glycom had chosen specifically to focus on these two HMOs, Vigsnaes explained that these are two of the most abundant HMOs in human breast milk.
“There are 20-25 HMOs that are most abundant in breast milk, making up 75% of the total amount of HMOs present. To us it made sense to produce the most abundant HMOs first, as our aim is to mirror the HMO percentages of breast milk as closely as possible. This is why we started with 2’FL, which is present in high concentrations in breast milk.”
However, these two HMOs are just the start for DSM.
“We will not stop at two, four, or six. There will be more. For sure we can produce others,” said Vigsnaes.
Infant nutrition and beyond
Given DSM’s strong position in the early nutrition segment, Glycom’s history with Nestlé and the fact that HMOs originate from breast milk, infant nutrition is an obvious focus area for the company.
“Infant nutrition is not only the most natural fit for HMOs, it also presents the biggest market opportunity – it is dynamic and evolving,” Karin Ødum, marketing manager at DSM/Glycom, said.
Ødum and Vigsnaes confirmed that DSM is looking at other areas beyond infant nutrition, including adult and medical nutrition. They said that it is too early to confirm what platforms and health areas it would be targeting, but hinted that digestive health might be one to watch.
“With infant formula, our focus is to get as close as possible to breast milk. Outside infant formula, we need to do more research to establish where we should focus our efforts. At present, we are still in the process of defining HMOs,” said Vigsnaes.