Researcher Profile: Anders Hakansson, PhD

Can Breast Milk Hold the Key to Novel Pneumonia Treatment?

Anders Hakansson, PhD As a graduate student at Lund University in Sweden, Anders Hakansson, PhD began investigating how a particular protein in breast milk may protect children from middle ear infections. His professional odyssey has led him through medical school and into some of America’s most highly regarded institutions, while he has continued to home in on that same human milk protein complex (HAMLET). Today his American Lung Association-sponsored research may one day result in novel treatment for pneumococcal pneumonia, a bacterial pneumonia, which would be immune from resistance that plagues today’s antibiotics.

Dr. Hakansson, assistant professor of microbiology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, had discovered HAMLET when researching the antibacterial activity of breast milk. He and his research team found that HAMLET kills pneumococci, the bacteria that cause pneumonia as well as other respiratory tract infections. “We know there is something special about this particular protein. When it binds with the milk’s fatty acid, it becomes active and effectively kills bacteria,” Dr. Hakansson explains. “We have been studying what the protein is doing, what those specific mechanisms are. Now through the American Lung Association-funded project, we are trying to find out if we can use HAMLET as a drug by trying to treat infections in an animal model with this protein.”

Dr. Hakansson, who conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard University and the University of Alabama, originally set out to be a physician. “During medical school, I felt so young, meeting so many elderly patients with so much life experience,” he explains. “I decided to try something different and took a break to do research. That was 18 years ago, and after I found this protein early on, my work has gone from there.”
Ultimately, that work could impact how clinicians treat pneumonia and decrease the number of lives lost every year. “Pneumococci are very common bacteria and live behind and in the nose but usually don’t make anyone sick until susceptible people like the elderly get viruses like a cold or the flu,” he says. “When bacteria sit there, they make colonies and bind together in very advanced architecture, which makes it very had to kill them with antibiotics.”

Research thus far has show that the bacteria do not become resistant to HAMLET. “My dream is that we can make drugs from this molecule that bacteria can’t become resistant against. It would be potentially very useful and could help discover other molecules and mechanisms that don’t easily lead to resistance-development.”