The programme, undertaken by Food for Health Ireland (FHI), uses bioinformatics to increase the probability of identifying bioactive milk peptides with health-enhancing properties.
The “intelligent milk mining” scheme could help reduce the risk involved with identifying successful bioactive ingredients, according to FHI, which is a new partnership between Irish dairy processors and research organisations.
Bioinformatics is the application of computer science to biology, which has only very recently been applied to nutrition. According to Dr Nora Khaldi, leader of FHI’s bioinformatics work package, “it’s a very quick way to narrow down the search to areas of proteins that we’re interested in”.
FHI was set up last year as a public-private collaboration between Irish academic and government research organisations and the country’s major dairy processing companies (Carbery, Dairygold, Glanbia and the Kerry Group).
It has received funding of €22.5m – mainly from the government – for the identification and commercialisation of bioactive ingredients from milk that can be used to address “the world’s most pressing health issues”, which include infant development, obesity, immunity and heart health.
Conserved through evolution
Research teams working on the initiative use bioinformatics to identify amino acid sequences in human, bovine and other mammalian milk proteins that have remained unchanged throughout evolution.
An unchanged – or ‘conserved’ – region in a protein is a sign that the sequence is performing an important function, and is therefore more likely to deliver health benefits, explained Dr Samara Freeman, project manager at FHI.
According to FHI, the advantage of using bioinformatics – a computer-based strategy – is that it can rule out bioactive sequences that already appear in published literature, so that investigations can focus on detecting novel regions of the proteins.
FHI has now identified 30 new peptides that it is currently synthesising and testing in the initial in vitro screening stages. The next stage is to pass to animal studies, followed by human intervention trials.
Given the high cost of identifying and testing new functional ingredients, FHI creates a ‘pre-competitive’ platform that allows competing ingredient firms to pool resources, said Jens Bleiel, FHI’s CEO.
What EFSA wants
The group is also keeping a close eye on the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) approach to health claims, which will help focus study designs, Bleiel told NutraIngredients.com.
“By understanding EFSA’s approach we can set up trials in a way that EFSA considers valid. So the idea is not to have to do ten intervention studies, but just two or three and to include all the criteria required by EFSA.”
Bleiel said FHI hopes to see “the emergence of some ingredients” within the next 18-24 months