UMSL technology could help unlock the keys to better baby formula

by | May 8, 2019

Doctoral candidate Mithila Bandara has been working to replicate the natural sugars in breast milk – called human milk oligosaccharides – in the lab of Professor Alexei Demchenko.
Mithila Bandara, Alexei Demchenko

Chemistry doctoral candidate Mithila Bandara (at right) shows Alexei Demchenko, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
and Biochemistry, the product of her work attempting to synthesize complex molecules found in breast milk. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Mithila Bandara dons clear safety glasses and scoops white powdery substances into a small round-bottom flask.

She pours in some clear solvent and adds a magnet that will help stir it all together. Next, she might apply heat or cooling as she sparks the chemical reaction she hopes will prove a crucial step in piecing together a complex molecule.

It’s slow work for Bandara, a doctoral candidate who’s passed untold hours this way over the past 2½ years while working in the lab of Alexei Demchenko, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Bandara has been trying to chemically replicate the sugars that occur naturally in breast milk – called human milk oligosaccharides.

So far, she’s managed to synthesize four molecules. But there are 162 or more found in human breast milk, and researchers around the globe have struggled to isolate and recreate them in the lab.

Bandara remains optimistic about the work.

“I’m actually really happy to contribute because it’s something nowadays that everyone is talking about,” Bandara says. “I think I’m doing something useful.”

Interest in human milk oligosaccharides stems from the role they’re thought to play in babies’ health, boosting immune systems and blocking pathogens. They have probiotic effects, helping infants develop friendly bacteria in the digestive system. Many believe they also provide important building blocks for the brain.

It’s no surprise then that manufacturers of baby formula are intrigued by the possibilities that adding synthetically produced human milk oligosaccharides might have for improving their products.

Already, two relatively simple sugars found in breast milk have been created with the help of enzymes and approved for use in formulas in the United States and Europe. Three more are set to be introduced in a clinical trial in Europe.

Demchenko is a synthetic carbohydrate chemist whose lab frequently participates in collaborative biologic studies or food chemistry, but he has no illusions of getting involved in formula manufacturing. He has received a grant of more than $2 million from the National Institutes of Health, a portion of which is specifically set aside to help produce human milk oligosaccharides synthetically. He’s hoping other scientists might use the molecules produced in his lab to more easily identify them in breast milk and test their specific antimicrobial properties.

He’s been collaborating with Carlito Lebrilla, a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis, whose lab is working to determine bioactive components in milk.

“If all of the individual molecules were available, people would understand their properties and their roles much better,” Demchenko says. “A mother produces a cocktail of 100 compounds, but scientists don’t know exactly which one does what.”

Ultimately, Demchenko wants to move beyond the traditional methods Bandara has been using to create these molecules.

In collaboration with UMSL Professor of Chemistry Keith Stine, Demchenko’s lab is developing technology for automated synthesis, in which a computer tells a machine how to more efficiently mix the chemicals and run the reaction. The process of making human milk oligosaccharides appears to line up well with the technology.

“We’re teaching the machine to deliver all the building blocks that Mithila would synthesize into the system,” Demchenko says. “With the pumps that are part of the machine, we’ll pump the reaction mixture through, and we will assemble molecules that way.

“All you need is to place compounds in vials. You don’t even need to dissolve anything. They’re dry compounds. You put them in the tray, you stick the tray into the machine, you program the software, press the button, go home, come back, you’ve got the molecule ready.”

The technology could help advance the science that goes into improving nutrition at such a crucial stage of life.

This story was originally published in the spring 2019 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik