News Release

Abbott's research review highlights five HMO prebiotics in breast milk that may benefit digestive, immune and cognitive development in complementary ways

Reports and Proceedings


ABBOTT PARK, Ill., — Breast milk, long recognized as the best source of nutrition for infants, provides a broad range of health benefits to babies due in part to containing special prebiotics called HMOs. Now, a new research review authored by Abbott researchers and published in the scientific journal of human nutrition, Nutrients, highlights five specific HMOs across the three categories of HMOs in breast milk showing they may provide support for gut health, the immune system and cognitive development.

"While breastmilk will always be the gold standard of infant nutrition, we are committed to further advancing our understanding of babies' nutritional needs to help them to learn, grow and thrive," said Rachael Buck, Ph.D., senior research fellow at Abbott and study author. "As our understanding of the role that HMOs can deliver to babies grows, we will continue our research and use it to support future innovations in infant nutrition that help narrow the gap between formula-fed and breast-fed infants."

This research review by lead author David Hill, Ph.D., research scientist at Abbott, proposes that the goal of infant formula innovation should be to emulate the benefits of breast milk during development and growth. It also proposes that five core Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs) across the three categories of HMOs in breast milk may support digestive health, immune health and cognitive development in complementary ways. Of the more than 150 HMOs found in breast milk, the five core specific HMOs that researchers focused on for purposes of this review include 2'-FL (2'-fucosyllactose); 3-FL (3-fucosyllactose); 3'-SL (3'-sialyllactose); 6'-SL (6'-sialyllactose) and LNT, (Lacto-N-Tetraose). These HMOs are found in the fucosylated, sialylated and acetylated HMO categories.

Benefits of HMOs
HMOs feed good bacteria in the gut, where 70% of the immune system resides, and promote growth of beneficial microbes, influencing immune development and the gut-brain axis through the microbial products produced. Pre-clinical research suggests an appropriate gut microbiota could also help influence overall brain health due to the influence of microbial products on the gut-brain axis, one pathway that allows your gut to send signals to your brain. This gut-brain connection is revolutionizing the way scientists understand the links between digestion, the immune system, overall health, and even the way we think – from the moment we’re born.

  • Gut Health
    HMOs may exert multiple direct and indirect benefits as they pass through the gastrointestinal tract, including their influence on the assembly and function of the gut microbiota. Pre-clinical research suggests HMOs support robust intestinal barrier function and regulate gut motility, which may help support the immune system and growth and development in infancy.
  • Immune Support
    In addition to supporting the assembly and function of the gut microbiota, HMOs work in complementary ways to provide immune support, which is built on the foundation of a healthy gut. In cell culture, the ability of individual HMOs across the three categories to block specific pathogen attachment to epithelial cells may provide immune support in complementary ways. Pre-clinical science suggests HMOs may act to support immune system development by modulating the behavior of immune cells.
  • Cognitive Development
    Pre-clinical research suggests that HMOs are associated with broad molecular and cellular changes in the developing brain. The complex signaling relationship between the gut and the brain via the gut-brain axis is prompting research to examine additional correlations between gut health and brain development.

More than 25 years of HMO Research
With almost 100 years of experience in infant formula research and innovation, Abbott's team of scientists have been globally recognized for their research of HMOs found in breast milk, studying the topic for more than two decades. Abbott was the first to make an infant formula with  2'-FL HMO*  in 2016, making this immune nourishing prebiotic that was previously only found at significant levels in breast milk available to formula fed babies. Learn more about the science and benefits of HMOs on Abbott's Nutrition Newsroom.

About Abbott
Abbott is a global healthcare leader that helps people live more fully at all stages of life. Our portfolio of life-changing technologies spans the spectrum of healthcare, with leading businesses and products in diagnostics, medical devices, nutritionals and branded generic medicines. Our 109,000 colleagues serve people in more than 160 countries. Connect with us at, on LinkedIn at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @AbbottNews.

* not from human milk


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