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Scientists Discover HIV-Resistant Protein in Breast Milk

Women in Senegal learn about prenatal care by playing a game.
Women in Senegal learn about prenatal care by playing a game.

Breastfeeding is one of the most important parts of early childhood development. Nutrition is crucial to children's physical and cognitive development, and breast milk provides newborns and infants with nutrients they need. However, breastfeeding children could have another benefit previously unknown to medical experts. According to a recent study, the results of which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a specific protein found in breast milk can help protect children from HIV.

A Major Breakthrough

It has long been known that mothers infected with HIV can pass the disease to their children during childbirth. However, scientists at Duke University recently discovered that a naturally occurring protein in breast milk, known as tenascin-C, binds to the active HIV cells and effectively disables them, preventing children from becoming infected. The results were particularly surprising to researchers behind the study, as tenascin-C was not previously thought to possess any antiviral properties.

"This was a surprise, because tenascin-C is not an antibody, nor had it been suspected of having any antiviral function," reads a summary from the paper. "Its known jobs are to help the development of the fetal brain and to assist in wound healing. That it is also the right shape to attach itself to HIV's envelope protein seems a complete coincidence — which, indeed, it must be, because AIDS is such a recent disease that evolution could not have had time to throw up a novel [and also ubiquitous] anti-HIV protein of this sort."

The discovery could yield further insight into the effective treatment of HIV, particularly among mothers infected with the disease. However, it remains to be seen whether the tenascin-C protein can be synthesized into a separate treatment.

Significant Health Benefits

Although the antiviral qualities of tenascin-C are an exciting development, we already know that breastfeeding yields many health benefits.

According to the World Health Organization, only around 38 percent of newborns worldwide are exclusively breastfed until the recommended age of six months, despite numerous health benefits. In addition, far too few children receive the supplementary foods they need. As a result, if breastfeeding were more commonly practiced, particularly in developing nations, more than 220,000 children's lives could be saved every year.

Even prior to the discovery of tenascin-C's benefits, the WHO has recommended that women taking antiviral medications for HIV should continue to breastfeed, as doing so for up to one year can still substantially reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission.

Promoting Awareness

ChildFund works in some of the world's poorest countries, where we engage with community members to promote breastfeeding and other practices that encourage healthy development of infants and children.

In Senegal, where we are leading the implementation of a $40 million USAID grant for improving health care, our work has helped raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding. The health huts that ChildFund supports have provided increased access to potentially lifesaving medical attention, as well as pre- and postnatal care, for thousands of women and children in need. In addition to helping women learn more about vital early childhood nutrition, these health huts have benefited more than 4 million people across Senegal.

It may be some time before a cure for HIV is found, but until then, we can continue to help save children's lives and educate families about the benefits of breastfeeding. However, we cannot do so as effectively without your support. Please consider becoming a monthly giving partner today. Your generosity will allow us to provide nutritious food, clean drinking water and health care to communities where the need is greatest.

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ChildFund International has earned high ratings from Charity Navigator, the American Institute of Philanthropy and Charities Review Council.

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