Maternal milk contains compounds that may affect newborn immunity. Among these are a group of oligosaccharides that are synthesized in the mammary gland from lactose; these oligosaccharides have been termed human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). The amount of HMOs present in human milk is greater than the amount of protein. In fact, HMOs are the third-most abundant solid component in maternal milk after lactose and lipids, and are thus considered to be key components. The importance of HMOs may be explained by their inhibitory effects on the adhesion of microorganisms to the intestinal mucosa, the growth of pathogens through the production of bacteriocins and organic acids, and the expression of genes that are involved in inflammation. This review begins with short descriptions of the basic structures of HMOs and the gut immune system, continues with the beneficial effects of HMOs shown in cell and animal studies, and it ends with the observational and randomized controlled trials carried out in humans to date, with particular emphasis on their effect on immune system development. HMOs seem to protect breastfed infants against microbial infections. The protective effect has been found to be exerted through cell signaling and cell-to-cell recognition events, enrichment of the protective gut microbiota, the modulation of microbial adhesion, and the invasion of the infant intestinal mucosa. In addition, infants fed formula supplemented with selected HMOs exhibit a pattern of inflammatory cytokines closer to that of exclusively breastfed infants. Unfortunately, the positive effects found in preclinical studies have not been substantiated in the few randomized, double-blinded, multicenter, controlled trials that are available, perhaps partly because these studies focus on aspects other than the immune response (e.g., growth, tolerance, and stool microbiota).
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