Scientists Discover HIV-Resistant Protein in Breast Milk
Women in Senegal learn about
prenatal care by playing a game.
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
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
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.
Although the antiviral qualities of tenascin-C are an exciting
development, we already know that breastfeeding yields many health
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.
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
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,
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
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.