Lactoferrin: the first line of defence for the body's immune system

Pathogens now face a new adversary. It goes by the innocuous name of lactoferrin, but this bioactive peptide, which is now being deployed in functional foods and drinks, health food supplements, infant formula, and animal feed, may turn out to be one of the most effective allies of the body's immune system. Ivan Fernandez reports.

Lactoferrin is a single-chain glycoprotein, a sub-fraction of whey protein. Advances in separation technology have now made it feasible to isolate bioactive peptides such as lactoferrin from whey.

Lactoferrin is present in body secretions such as milk, tears, mucus, blood, and saliva and binds easily with iron. It occurs in much higher levels of concentration in human breast milk than in bovine milk.

Very high concentrations of lactoferrin are found in the colostrum ­ the first milk produced by the mother through breastfeeding, which has for long been acknowledged as the ideal first food for babies and the perfect mechanism through which immunity can be transferred from mother to child.

Lactoferrin, in breast milk, has low saturation levels of iron (referred to as apolactoferrin). Lactoferrin which has high levels of iron saturation is called hololactoferrin.

Fortifying the system

The strong affinity for iron is the key to understanding most of lactoferrin's disease-fighting properties.

Since it binds readily with iron, it improves the body's uptake of iron (bioavailability of iron) and so helps prevent iron deficiency and anemia, which are nutritional disorders affecting around 20 per cent of the world's population.

In binding with iron, it also deprives harmful bacteria of this essential resource and so inhibits their chances of surviving and multiplying.

Apart from this antibiotic property, the binding with iron reduces the chances of the formation of free-radicals and so helps prevent cell damage that is part of the aging process.

Lactoferrin is also believed to suppress tumour growth and may soon find itself an integral part of the treatment against several types of cancers, most notably pancreatic cancer.

Beneficial bacteria

Studies have also revealed the beneficial effect of lactoferrin on gut health. This protein helps maintain optimum levels of beneficial bacteria such as bifidus in the intestinal tract and so prevents gastrointestinal inflammations.

Lactoferrin also helps prevent viral infections such as HIV and herpes, and diseases triggered by fungal and yeast activity.

Lactoferrin does not target specific types of bacteria. This nonspecific nature has proved to be a blessing in disguise (Many antibiotics are designed to counter specific bacteria. They can become less effective over time because bacteria are capable of developing strains that are resistant to the antibiotic. This is not the case with lactoferrin).

Convinced of these health-promoting properties, an increasing number of companies are waking up to the potential of commercialising lactoferrin.

When positioned as a health supplement, this ingredient is sold in the form of tablets, capsules, or powders.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the generally recognised as safe (GRAS) status to DMV International's milk-derived lactoferrin, in August 2001.

In the EU, the Dairy Hygiene Directive 92/46 forms the basis for using bovine lactoferrin in foods.

In Japan, the most advanced market for functional foods, the Ministry of Health and Welfare's announcement No. 160, on August 10, 1995, allowed lactoferrin concentrates in food.

In addition, biotechnology organisations such as Applied Phytologics and Japan Agricultural Cooperatives are exploring the plant molecular farming potential of lactoferrin through rice crops.

Joining the food safety crusade

Another exciting application of lactoferrin is in the promotion of food safety. Researchers have been able to mimic the antimicrobial function of lactoferrin and apply it to protect beef.

Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave its go-ahead for the application of activated lactoferrin on fresh beef to inhibit food-poisoning pathogens such as E.coli, salmonella, and campylobacter.

The application of lactoferrin on the surface of the beef does not change the taste, flavour, colour, or appearance of the beef. The largest producer-owned beef processor in the United States, Farmland National Beef, is expected to soon be the first to commercialise this procedure.

Despite the encouraging findings of several studies, the most significant challenge remains the bridging of vast knowledge gaps especially with regard to the exact mechanism by which lactoferrin performs its immune-enhancing functions.

Also, most studies conducted so far have been in vitro or have used animal subjects such as rats, pigs, cats, and sheep. More conclusive work on human responses to lactoferrin needs to be done.

Finally, resistance to transgenic lactoferrin (one more battleground for biotechnologists and the anti-GM lobby) must also be contended with.

Open field trials

The opposition to open field trials stems mainly from the concern that these bioengineered crops might contaminate the environment and the food chain by passing on their genes to conventional crops.

For the expanding market for functional foods, meeting and overcoming these challenges is not expected to be free of impediments. But the amazing potential of this wonder protein will make it well worth the stretch. u

Frost & Sullivan is an international marketing consulting and training company. It works closely with clients to identify and analyse the critical market challenges they must address to become successful competitors in their industry. For more information, visit

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