The research firm, a subsidiary of leading food group Ebro Puleva, says it has found lactic acid bacteria in human milk and is now scaling-up a plant to produce selected strains for the commercial market.
Puleva will enter a fast-growing category but it is not without competition. Many of the probiotics on the market have been developed by companies with long-standing expertise in cultures or fermentation.
However Puleva is hoping that the origin of the bacteria will be a unique selling point. "Every functional food company tries to get as close as possible to the gold standard in human nutrition - breast milk," Julio Boza Puerta, subdirector general at Puleva Biotech, told NutraIngredients.com.
"These are the same bacteria being transferred to babies to shore up their immune system for the years ahead. These are therefore the best kind of bacteria you can get."
Researchers first identified probiotic bacteria in breast milk during the 1970s but it was not clear where the bacteria had come from. Then in the late 1980s Swedish firm BioGaia isolated strains of lactic acid bacteria from Peruvian mothers living in the highlands and screened them in their US laboratories for potential probiotic properties. This led to the development of its well-known Lactobacillus reuteri.
In a study published in the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics (143: 754-8), researchers from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, backed by Puleva Biotech, confirmed that lactic acid bacteria in human milk "may have an endogenous origin and may not be the result of contamination from the surrounding breast skin".
The scientists studied bacteria isolated from the mammary areola, breast skin and vagina of eight mothers to compare it with the bacteria found in the gut of infants. They also tested samples of infant faeces and oral bacteria to assess whether breastmilk contained the bacteria that colonised the infant's digestive tract.
The results suggest that bacteria in breast milk could be a natural probiotic for newborns. Further studies on mice, tracking the DNA of bacteria from the mother to pups, also confirm the transfer to offspring.
An animal study, about to be published, identifies a possible mechanism for this transfer.
"It appears that the mother is able to transfer bacteria through the umbilical cord but also via the lymph nodes to mammary glands," explained Boza Puerta, at the company's first stand at the Vitafoods tradeshow in Geneva last week.
Based on the findings Puleva has patented selected strains, not yet branded, but expected to be ready by September this year.
Infant nutrition could be the biggest application for Puleva's new bacteria, based on their original source. But there is also potential in a growing number of food applications.
Puleva Biotech was set up in 2000 after the creation of the Ebro Puleva group, which then carved out its R&D activities into a separate unit. Ninety per cent of its staff are still scientists and most of its business comes from sister companies. For example, it has also been working on prebiotic ingredients for the sugar business Azucarera and it currently sells 7 million litres of its omega fatty acids to dairy business Puleva each month, which produces an omega-3 fortified milk.
However it is hoping to drive sales through outside contracts, and probiotic bacteria are fuelling much of today's growth in functional foods.In Europe probiotics are set to more than triple in value over the next six years, according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report, reaching $137.9 million (€118.5m) in 2010, with the US market projected to reach $394 million.
And the evidence so far suggests that the Puleva bacteria may be effective in foods. A clinical trial on 30 people given yoghurt containing the bacteria showed a significant benefit to the immune system. The next study underway is looking at whether the bacteria can combat allergy to olive tree pollen.