Researchers are reporting that new insights into the composition of human breast milk may lead to new ways to prevent and treat stomach illnesses and other diseases in babies and adults, according to an article in the Sept. 29 issue of Chemical & Engineering News.

In the story, Jyllian Kemsley notes that human breast milk is a complex fluid composed of several key components, including lactose, a sugar that provides energy for the infant, and lipids, which are thought to provide healthy fats to infants. But scientists are just now beginning to understand the composition and function of many of the components of human breast milk.

Researchers have found, for example, that certain sugars in breast milk could be developed into treatments that help fight necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a potentially deadly disease that affects about 10 percent of premature infants.

Some types of sugars in breast milk appear to prevent bacterial infections, including those that cause severe diarrhea, the article notes. A better understanding of the chemistry and function of breast milk can also lead to the design of more nutritious infant formulas and cow's milk products, the article suggests.

"[Breast milk] is a remarkable fluid," remarked one researcher. "It's extremely embarrassing how little we still know about it."