The race to find weapons against a growing class of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is taking researchers to some unlikely places.

In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington DC in August, researchers from Vanderbilt University said their studies had shown that components in Human Breast Milk could provide a way to both knock out dangerous strains of bacteria or enhance the usefulness of other therapies.

Sugar that does your body good

The key lies in human milk oligosaccharides or HMOs. These are sugars found in mother’s milk, and for years researchers didn't pay them much attention, in part because it is more difficult to separate out the sugars than the proteins in breast milk.

Now that the process has become somewhat easier, scientists are getting a good look at some of HMO's amazing properties.

In the Vanderbilt tests, samples of Group B streptococcus, a bacteria common in pregnant women, were exposed to HMOs. In some of the samples, the sugars killed the bacteria outright, while in others, it broke down the protective “biofilm” surrounding the bacteria. In a couple of samples, it did both.

The one-two punch

“Our results show that these sugars have a one-two punch,” said Dr. Stephen Townsend, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Vanderbilt. “First, they sensitize the target bacteria, and then they kill them. Biologists sometimes call this ‘synthetic lethality, ’ and there is a major push to develop new antimicrobial drugs with this capability.”

Their follow-up study showed that HMOs showed positive results in tackling two of the six most drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Health experts calculate that more than 2 million Americans become infected from antibiotic-resistant superbugs each year and at least 23,000 deaths a year can be directly attributed to these infections.

Coming to a food near you

It’s too early to say if human milk oligosaccharides can be developed into an effective antibacterial treatment, but they are poised to become the next big thing in improving gut health.

In babies, HMOs promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. It turns out they have similar benefits for adults. Several companies are working on synthesizing human milk sugars with the hopes of creating food supplements and products to help the gut ward off bad bugs and promote good ones and combat everything from obesity to depression.