Medical experts have always been pressing the utter need of breast milk and its innumerable benefits for the newborns which run lifelong. Numerous studies from around the world have shown that stomach viruses, lower respiratory illnesses, ear infections, and meningitis occur less often in breastfed babies and are less severe when they do happen.
But it is the first time that scientists have discovered its benefits in protecting the babies from acquiring HIV from their infected mothers. A protein that neutralises HIV has been identified in breast milk.
Named Tenascin-C or TNC, the protein was initially known for its wound-healing properties but its antimicrobial benefits remained unravelled till now. The discovery could lead to potential new HIV-prevention strategies.
In order to prevent infants from getting infected by the virus due to repeated exposure, TNC protein breast milk binds to and neutralises the HIV virus.
"Even though we have antiretroviral drugs that can work to prevent mother-to-child transmission, not every pregnant woman is being tested for HIV, and less than 60 per cent are receiving the prevention drugs, particularly in countries with few resources," said senior study author Sallie Permar, assistant professor of pediatrics, immunology and molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke.
"So there is still a need for alternative strategies to prevent mother-to-child transmission, which is why this work is important," Permar said.
Mature milk samples from uninfected women were screened by researchers at Duke University Medical Center. The results confirmed that all of the detectable HIV-neutralisation activity was contained in the high molecular weight portion.
"TNC is a component of the extracellular matrix that is integral to how tissues hold themselves together," Permar said, noting that co-author Harold Erickson, professor of cell biology at Duke, was among the first to identify and describe TNC in the 1980s.
Researchers found the protein is uniquely effective in capturing virus particles and neutralises the virus, specifically binding to the HIV envelope.
"It's likely that TNC is acting in concert with other anti-HIV factors in breast milk, and further research should explore this," Permar said.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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