The Milk Man

Lars Bode was a dedicated athlete who spent much of his time studying specialized diets for optimal performance, first in the pool and then in the gym.

“I was constantly teased by my older brother for my ‘strange’ concoctions,” said Bode, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Those jokes, however, turned into a serious change in Bode’s career path after he landed a college internship at a baby formula company.

Lars Bode, who studies human milk oligosaccharides, in the neonatal intensive care unit at UC San Diego Health System-Hillcrest in San Diego, Calif. on Thursday May 29, 2014. Photograph by Tracy Boulian and David Ahntholz © Copyright 2014 David Ahntholz and Tracy Boulian
Lars Bode, who studies human milk oligosaccharides, in the neonatal intensive care unit at UC San Diego Health. Photo: Tracy Boulian and David Ahntholz

“I worked on a project during that internship involving glycolipids—components of human milk that are part fat and part sugar. At that time, my group was more interested in the fat part and cleaved off the sugar part. But the group next door was studying human milk oligosaccharides and the many magical things they can do. It was a defining moment for me,” said Bode.

Breast milk is a complex blend of proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and sugar molecules called human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs. There are about 200 types of HMO, and like thumbprints, their combination and concentrations are unique to each nursing mother.

“The components of breast milk are fascinating in what they can do and the health benefits to the infant and mother,” said Bode. “There are bacteria and even stem cells in human milk that might benefit the infant, and possibly the mother. There are also several different immune cells in human milk that provide protection. A mother’s body can sense what is in the environment and what immune cells and antibodies need to be delivered to an infant at a given time. Mothers who breastfeed also have a lower risk of cancer.”

Bode recently received funding to study how the compounds in human milk could even treat chronic illnesses in adults, like inflammatory bowel disease.

“Lactating mothers could be the key for future drug development,” said Bode. “It’s very important to see if we can take components of human milk and develop them in natural therapies. If HMOs can prevent necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a deadly gastrointestinal disease that primarily affects premature babies, could it be possible they work in adult diseases?”

Bode adds that scientists screen chemicals found all the way at the bottom of the ocean and are then surprised about the adverse effects those compounds may have on the body.

“Mom has developed a whole arsenal of bioactive components that have been proven safe for the infant,” said Bode. “Mother Nature holds exciting opportunities for us to develop novel drugs based on what we learn from human milk research.”

UC San Diego is leading the way when it comes to studying human milk by launching MoMI CoRE – Mother Milk Infant Center of Research Excellence.

“Our mission for MoMI CoRE is to unravel the complexity of human milk for optimal infant health by promoting excellence, synergy and innovation in research, clinical practice and education. Our vision is to serve as a model of multidisciplinary research as a key to answering complicated questions related to why and how human milk promotes optimal health, growth and development,” said Bode.

UC San Diego also recently started Mommy’s Milk, a human milk biorepository where mothers are asked to donate milk samples that will help build a research platform for scientists worldwide. The samples will allow researchers to study how maternal factors influence human milk composition and how human milk components impact immediate and long-term infant health.

Bode has devoted his entire professional career to studying the science behind the saying “breast is best,” but he is also aware that some women are not able to nurse or choose not to.

“As a society, we need to make sure not to stigmatize women based on their personal decisions,” said Bode. “Breastfeeding is a very personal, emotional and often controversial topic. But, science does show breast milk provides the highest quality of nutrition that is hard to mimic with baby formula; not to mention the mother-baby bonding interactions that cannot be replaced.”

Bode says he feels just as passionate today about what the future holds for human milk research and discoveries as he did when he started his internship years ago, and as a father, he has a personal investment in his work.