Breast milk seems to protect babies against some of the effects of what scientists call “free radicals”—unstable atoms and molecules in the body that can damage cells. But just what is it in breast milk that does that?
If scientists could figure out the answer and apply it to infant milk formulas, it could be especially useful for premature babies. Such babies often receive lifesaving oxygen therapy that can, as an unwanted side effect, lead to the formation of free radicals.
Answering that question has intrigued Apollo Tsopmo for the past six years. Tsopmo is a professor in the food science and nutrition program of Carleton’s chemistry department, and he is trying to isolate the antioxidant molecules in breast milk that can neutralize free radicals.
His research starts by using enzymes to break down a sample of breast milk, mimicking the digestion going on in a baby’s gastrointestinal tract. Then he uses one of several methods to separate the “digested” sample into fractions. For instance, he might use a cascade of membranes to divide the sample into smaller portions, each with a different molecule size. “Then we evaluate them for the activity we are interested in,” he says.
His ultimate goal is to find the components in breast milk that combat free radicals and then synthesize those antioxidants and add them to baby formula.
“We are looking for something that can take care of the extra oxygen that is not used, and then that will reduce some damage to lungs,” Tsopmo says.