Specifically, the project seeks to develop an enzymatic process that will permit breast milk oligosaccharides to be produced outside the breast, i.e. in a lab.
Oligosaccharides are complex sugars naturally present in breast milk and are of interest to infant formula makers because they are present in relatively high concentration in breast milk and can help protect babies from infections and diarrhea.
“It’s a major challenge technically, but it is also a significant opportunity,” said Danisco’s UK-based chief scientific officer, Dr Andrew Morgan.
The project has received seed funding of DKK 20 million (€2.7m) from the Danish Council for Strategic Research – an initiative that runs under the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
DTU’s Jørn Dalgaard Mikkelsen told NutraIngredients the project actually had closer to DKK 36 (€4.83m) at its disposal once additional funding from the universities and Arla and Danisco was factored in.
Mikkelsen, who worked for about 20 years at Danisco and also worked at Danish brewer, Carlsberg, said the project had an initial lifespan of four years, but could run longer with lactose extraction forming an initial focus.
“Lactose will be investigated but won’t be the only area of research,” he said, noting a “handful” of oligosaccharides had been isolated for research from more than 800 known forms.
Preben Bødstrup Rasmussen, R&D manager for child nutrition at Arla Foods said the project would employ about 50 people directly and indirectly, with about 12 full time researchers in Mikkelsen’s team.
“Arla and Danisco will supply materials and specialists to the project,” he said, observing the companies had collaborated on other projects in the past. “It can benefit us because Arla are fairly new to the infant formula [Arla has sold its Milex brand in Asia and central America for 3-4 years] and so if and when this research is commercialised at some point in the future, it may be that Danisco manufactures the ingredient and we buy it from them. Our R&D team is not specialized in infant nutrition.”
But any commercialisation terms have yet to be determined between the companies and the universities.
“In Denmark it is common that IP rights are held by the universities and companies buy the rights to the IP so that may happen in this case,” Rasmussen said.
In the project the lead academic institution – the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) – is joined by the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Reading along with Arla and Danisco.
Mikkelsen added: “Some of the substances in breast milk are oligosaccharides which are believed to be prebiotic, i.e. they ‘nourish’ the beneficial bacteria in the intestinal system and prevent harmful bacteria from establishing themselves. There are thousands of oligosaccharide structures present in human breast milk and we need to determine which are the most effective. We plan to develop a way to produce these oligosaccharides using an enzymatic process that will convert certain kinds of food materials into the desired products.”
Rasmussen said in a statement: “Research in oligosaccharides from human milk is key to understanding the development of the immune system in newborn infants. Therefore the possibility to develop and manufacture such substances can lead to new and higher standards for commercial infant formula.”
Morgan said the "risky project" was unlikely to yield any direct commercial outcome within five years, despite the quality of the researchers involved.
“... the University scientists working on this are some of the best so if anyone is going to crack this, I believe this team has a good chance.”