What is lactoferrin

Lactoferrin is a naturally occurring iron binding glycoprotein with a molecular weight of 80 kDa, which is found in the milk of many mammals including humans and cows, as well as in the saliva, tears and other secretions. In cow’s milk, the levels of lactoferrin are highest in colostrum (~1.5 g/L) followed by milk (~0.15 g/L). In comparison, lactoferrin levels are much higher in humans – 7 g/L and 1 g/L in colostrum and mature milk respectively.

The lactoferrin protein comprises of two globular lobes. In each lobe, a ferric ion (Fe3+) is bound at the bottom of a deep cleft. At neutral pH the iron is bound extremely tight to the protein; in an acidic environment, the iron is released. There are three forms of lactoferrin according to its iron saturation level: apo-lactoferrin (iron free), a monoferric form (one Fe3+), and holo-lactoferrin (two Fe3+ bound). The ability to bind iron underpins many of lactoferrins functions, and also gives rise to its characteristic pink colour.

Lactoferrin is an important component of the immune system of the body. It is released from certain types of white blood cells at sites of inflammation and has anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory activity.

The history of bovine (cow) lactoferrin dates back to 1939 when a red protein in milk was first reported. However, it was not until the 1960’s that it was fully identified. Since then there have been more than 7,000 research articles listed on Pubmed and 1,500 patents relating to lactoferrin.

Key actions of lactoferrin

It is an exciting time for lactoferrin with new emerging benefits such as its ability to help reduce acne, prevent iron deficiency in pregnancy, promote the breakdown of fat, supporting bone growth and helping brain and cognitive development. Lactoferrins key actions to explore are:

  • Lactoferrin in infant health and nutrition
  • Supporting a healthy immune function
  • Antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties
  • Support healthy gut flora and digestive health
  • Regulation of iron absorption and metabolism
  • Anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity

Emerging research also indicates lactoferrin may even directly support the development of the infants brain and its ability to learn new things6. A recent study has found that lactoferrin may also help infants have softer stooling7. In comparison to human breast milk, cow’s milk has less lactoferrin. Premium infant formulas often supplement their formula with extra lactoferrin in order to get closer to human milk.

Lactoferrin in infant and children health

Lactoferrin is a highly abundant protein in mother’s breast milk. Lactoferrin quantities are at their peak in early milk and it is at this early stage of infancy where it plays its most important role for the best infant nutrition 1. Lactoferrin helps in the delivery of iron to infants 2 – a mineral that is super important in development of a healthy brain. It is believed to assist the developing infants immune system, as well as help prevent infections3 through its powerful anti-microbial affects, giving young infants a strong defence against disease causing bacteria and viruses4. Emerging research indicates lactoferrin may even directly support the development of the infants brain and its ability to learn new things5.

Lactoferrin supports the infants developing digestive system where it promotes the growth of good bacteria such as the Bifidobacterium, and supports the growth of intestinal cells 6–8. A recent study has found that lactoferrin may also help infants have softer stools9. Lactoferrin has been found to reduce the severity of diarrhoea in children10.

In comparison to human breast milk, cow’s milk has less lactoferrin. Infant formula is often supplemented with extra lactoferrin in order to bring the level closer to human breast milk.

Lactoferrin and immune function

There is considerable evidence for lactoferrin being involved in the stimulation of the immune system11, including enhancing production and/or activation of immune cells, such as lymphocytes12,13. Lactoferrins positive charge allows it to bind to negatively charged molecules on the surface of various cells of the immune system14 and it has been suggested that this association can trigger signalling pathways that lead to cellular responses such as activation, differentiation and proliferation.

In adults, Lactoferrin has been found to be effective at reducing the severity and duration of common colds15.

In addition to inducing systemic immunity, lactoferrin can promote skin immunity and inhibit allergic responses. It induces the immune system against skin allergens, causing migration to the reaction site of specialised immune cells of the skin 17.

Antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal activity

Lactoferrin is known to exert a broad-spectrum primary defence activity against bacteria (both gram positive and gram negative), fungi, protozoa and viruses. Lactoferrin is able to sequester iron away from bacteria. Iron is critical to the growth of bacteria, therefore removing it causes growth to slow or stop. This is the basis for lactoferrins bacteriostatic activity 18. Lactoferrin can bind to certain components on the surface of bacterial cells and essentially remove them, which is thought to cause perforation of the bacterial cell wall leading to cell death18.

Lactoferrin acts against the spread of viruses by diverting them from the cells they are targeting. Many viruses tend to bind to the specific proteins of the cell membranes to facilitate entry into the cell. Lactoferrin binds to these proteins, preventing the attachment of the virus particles19. Lactoferrin can also bind directly to viral particles, such as hepatitis. Research has shown promising effects of lactoferrin against a range of viruses including herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, cytomegalovirus, HIV, hepatitis C virus, hantaviruses, rotaviruses, poliovirus type 1, human respiratory syncytial virus and murine leukaemia viruses19. Lactoferrin also reduces virus replication after the virus has penetrated into the cell through its interactions with the immune system – affecting natural killer cells, granulocytes and macrophages, which play a crucial role in the early stages of viral infections.

Lactoferrin and digestive health

Lactoferrin has a number of actions that contribute to a healthy digestive system. Lactoferrin has been found to improve gut barrier function and support the growth of intestinal cells 6,20–23, prevent microbial infection that may be linked to Chron’s disease 24 and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria while killing harmful bacteria thus contributing to the development of a healthy microflora environment8,25–27 .

Stomach ulcers can be caused by H. pylori infection. In a number of clinical studies, lactoferrin, either alone or in combination with the standard triple therapy, has been shown to be effective at eradicating H.pylori 28–30

Lactoferrin and iron metabolism

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. Pregnant women and children are the most at risk populations, due to the rapid physiological changes and inadequate nutrient consumption31. Healthy iron levels are necessary for immune, muscle & cognitive function, and iron supplementation is recommended during pregnancy to reduce the risk of preterm labour, pre-eclampsia & low birthweight infants.

Consumption of lactoferrin has been shown to help restore haematological parameters including number of red blood cells, haemoglobin, and total serum iron and serum ferritin concentrations in pregnant and non-pregnant women suffering iron deficiency32–34. In addition, these studies showed that lactoferrin had almost no side effects compared to iron supplements such as ferrous sulphate.

It is thought that the mechanism of this activity is independent of lactoferrins iron content, and actually occurs by lactoferrin modulating serum IL-6, hepcidin and ferroportin levels, thus permitting iron export from tissues to blood and restoring haematological parameters 33.

Lactoferrin has also been shown to improve the absorption and utilization of iron in endurance athletes, and minimise the build-up of blood lactate35 thus supporting athletic performance.

Lactoferrin anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity

As an iron binding protein, lactoferrin can bind highly reactive free iron that causes oxidative stress. This activity may also contribute to lactoferrins anti-inflammatory activity: By scavenging free iron in inflamed tissue, lactoferrin prevents iron-catalysed free-radical damage at inflamed sites36.

Although the mechanisms are not yet fully understood, lactoferrin can also directly regulate the inflammatory response37. This effect may be due to an inhibition of the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines by lactoferrin binding to molecules that interact with a specific receptor signalling cascade, which is instrumental in the inflammatory response to microbial infection. For example, lactoferrin can bind to bacterial endotoxins38, which are components of certain gut-derived bacteria and are major stimulators of inflammation.

In one study it was found that oral lactoferrin treatment may have an anti-inflammatory effect on pregnant women, reducing pregnancy complications39; peptides (small fragments) derived from lactoferrin during digestion have been found to reduce compounds associated with inflammation in arthritis40 and consumption of lactoferrin has been found to help reduce skin inflammation associated with acne41.

Lactoferrin and skin health

Consumption of lactoferrin has been found to be effective at reducing acne lesions and skin inflammation. In one study, patients 18 to 30 years of age were randomly assigned to ingest fermented milk with 200 mg of lactoferrin daily or fermented milk only (placebo group) in a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study 41. In the group consuming lactoferrin fermented milk, acne showed improvement by significant decreases in inflammatory lesion count (38.6%), total lesion count (23.1%), and acne grade (20.3%) compared with the placebo group.

In another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 168 subjects aged 13-40 years old took either a capsule containing lactoferrin with vitamin E and zinc, or placebo twice a day for three months 42. At week 10, those taking lactoferrin with vitamin E and zinc showed a significant reduction in total lesions (28.5%), comedones (32.5%) and inflammatory lesions (44%) compared to placebo.

Lactoferrins fat fighting activity

Research has found that lactoferrin might help humans shed body fat. Lactoferrins ability to reduce body fat was first discovered at the cellular level43 where researchers found that lactoferrin can help fight against obesity by inhibiting the accumulation of fat in fat cells and by inhibiting the formation of new fat cells.

Human trials confirm this finding as well. In one study, healthy men and women between 22 and 60 years old took 300 mg of lactoferrin a day for two months. The group taking lactoferrin experienced a 12% reduction in belly fat compared to the group that did not44.

Lactoferrin and bone health

Bone is continually being replaced and maintained in humans, regardless of age. Two different bone cell types are involved in this – osteoclasts, which absorb bone and osteoblasts, which form new bone. At different ages, the activity of these two types of cells differ. In older age, the condition known as osteoporosis is caused when bone resorption is greater than bone formation, resulting in bone loss.

Milk provides nutrition at a time of very rapid skeletal growth and so lactoferrin was researched as potentially having growth effects on bone. Research over the last decade has found that lactoferrin helps support bone growth 45. How it appears to do this is very interesting. Lactoferrin has a double effect – it not only decreases osteoclast activity but also activates osteoblasts to increase bone formation. Currently, these effects have only been tested in animal studies 46–48, however in future we may see these benefits fully tested in humans.

How lactoferrin is made

Bega Bionutrients utilises specialised extraction and filtration technology to capture the lactoferrin from the milk before being dried into a powder so that it can be used as an ingredient in a variety of products such as in infant nutritional products, dietary supplements, functional foods, and cosmetics. Click here for more information on Bega Bionutrients lactoferrin

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