New research: piglets the focus to optimise milk formula for human babies

8 APRIL 2024

New research: piglets the focus to optimise milk formula for human babies

Charles Sturt researchers are conducting first-ever trials with newborn piglets to help discover the best human breast milk alternative.

  • Charles Sturt University researchers are leading a project using 80 newborn piglets to optimise breast milk outcomes for human babies
  • The impact of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) on improving brain and gut development and reducing anxious behaviour is being trialled on newborn piglets
  • The research will be conducted from 2023 to 2025 and has the potential to impact neonatal care for all children, particularly those born premature, while reducing costs of health care and social services

Charles Sturt University researchers are conducting first-ever trials with newborn piglets to help discover the best human breast milk alternative to optimise neurodevelopment and gut development in human infants.

The trials are part of a Wagga Wagga-based project by researchers in the Charles Sturt Gulbali Research Institute for Agriculture, Water and Environment who are investigating alternative nutrition sources for babies when breast milk – the first and most vital form of food for humans – is not available.

Human breast milk contains vital components which decrease the risk of infection by bacteria and viruses and promotes overall health and neurodevelopment.

The research team’s lead, Professor of Physiology and Nutrition Bing Wang in the Charles Sturt School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences, said human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are the third most abundant class of biomolecules in mature human milk, after lactose and lipids.

More than 200 different HMOs have been identified, and these can reach levels approximately 20–25 grams per litre in colostrum and 5–20 grams per litre in mature milk,” Professor Wang said.

When breast milk is not available for infants, infant formula is typically recommended as a substitute.

Professor Wang said the study involves a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that can also directly benefit the pig industry too, and by working together across disciplines, researchers aim to improve health outcomes for both humans and animals while safeguarding the health of the planet.

The research aims to explore how the molecular and cellular mechanisms of dietary HMOs can be replicated to either act alone or in combination to enhance neurodevelopment and gut development in piglets, an ideal animal model for the human infant.

Professor Wang said the research, titled Effect of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) intervention on brain, gut development and behaviour in piglets (2023-2025), uses piglets due to their brain structure and function closely resembling that of human infants, as well as their digestive systems sharing similar physiology and anatomical structures with comparable nutrient requirements.

“We used two to three combinations of HMOs or HMOs in combination with milk glycoprotein to determine the most effective synergy for both gut and brain development,” she said.

“Breastmilk is the optimal and complete source of nutrition for infants during the first four to six months of life, and while infant formula is the recommended alternative and the first choice for providing nutrition to infants who cannot be exclusively breastfed, it is mostly based on cow milk which misses the critical nutrients of HMOs.

“HMOs as prebiotics play a significant role in the development and function of the infant gut microbiota, which in turn affects various aspects of gut development and behaviour.”

Professor Wang’s Wagga Wagga-based research team includes Dr Xiaoming Zheng, Dr Shaun Wang, Dr Allan Gunn, Dr Peter Wynn, Dr Wendy Li, and PhD student Mahmudul Amin, Dilki Adikari Arachchige, Tanjina Amin and Honours student Ms Lucy Walsh.

They also worked alongside 12 undergraduate students to learn skills around calculation of daily milk intake, milk preparation, animal feeding, care, animal weighing, cleaning of animal house, assessing faecal consistency score and behavioural testing.

The team has now completed three feeding trials in 48 piglets, as well as working with a team at Monash University’s Bioimaging Centre to perform MRI scans of the piglets’ brains to visualise changes in cerebral neurodevelopmental processes at 38 days of age, which is equivalent to about 10 to 12 months of age as a human infant.

“This is the first preclinical study taking a nutraceutical approach to deliver innovative therapeutic applications of HMOs in gut development, neurodevelopment, immunity and behaviour in piglets, which are an ideal animal model for the human infant,” Professor Wang said.

These studies will further contribute to understanding of molecular, biological and biochemical mechanisms associated with the superior growth and intelligence of breast-fed infants, particularly those born small or premature, relative to those reared on infant formula.

Professor Wang said a suitable alternative animal model is essential for future clinic trial studies because it is difficult to differentiate genetic, environmental and nutritional factors, and ethically unacceptable to conduct randomised controlled trials of tissue analysis in human infants.

With roughly just 35 per cent of Australian infants exclusively breastfed until six months of age, that leaves more than 60 per cent to rely on infant formula during early neural development, meaning these products need to be made well and efficiently.

“Early-life nutrition is the critical period of the first 1,000 days of an infant’s life, which starts from conception and extends through pregnancy and the first two years of their life,” she said.

“This period is widely recognised as a window of opportunity for optimal growth, development and a child’s health and well-being throughout their life.

“Therefore, our study has the potential to impact neonatal care for all children, particularly those born premature, and reduce costs of health care and social services, overall enhancing the wealth of Australian societies.”

The research will be carried out until 2025.


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Bing Wang, contact Jessica McLaughlin at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0430 510 538 or via

The Gulbali Institute for Agriculture, Water and Environment is a strategic investment by Charles Sturt University to drive integrated research to optimise farming systems, enhance freshwater ecosystems and improve environmental management, to deliver benefits across Australia and globally.

PHOTO: (Back, L-R): Charles Sturt PhD student Mr Mahmudul Amin, Monash University head of pre-clinical imaging Dr Michael De Veer, Charles Sturt imaging specialist Mr Hangxin Wang, Charles Sturt Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Wendy Li, Charles Sturt PhD student Ms Dilki Adikari Arachchige, (Front, L-R) veterinary anaesthesia specialist Dr Tina Bryant, Monash University senior MRI radiographer Mr Richard McIntyre and Charles Sturt research team leader Dr Bing Wang.

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