Mother's Milk Secret to Stopping HIV

Breast milk antibodies from HIV positive mothers fight HIV

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) HIV can be transmitted from mother to her child through nursing. But a surprising ingredient in an HIV-positive mother's milk may protect her baby against infection.

Researchers at Duke University have discovered an antibody in the breast milk of HIV-infected mothers that neutralizes the virus and prevents it from passing to their children.

The antibody may explain why surprisingly few breastfed infants get HIV from their mothers.

Scientists hope that the discovery might lead to the development of an effective HIV vaccine.

"If you're pregnant with HIV, talk to your doctor about a feeding plan."

Dr. Sallie Permar, an assistant professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Duke, was senior author of the study which was published in PloS One. Her research team had suspected that an immune response protects nine out of ten infants against HIV.

They took breast milk from an infected woman from Malawi, Africa. The woman's infant remained HIV negative after six months of breastfeeding.

In the lab, the scientists isolated a type of immune cell called a B-cell. These particular B-cells were found to have a neutralizing response to the HIV virus.

An antibody's job is to identify and neutralize bacteria and viruses. That means that these B-cells were able to recognize HIV and stop it from infecting the child.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women do not breastfeed if they are HIV-positive and instead supplement with formula.

But in developing countries, the World Health Organization advises that mothers take antiretroviral drugs and nurse, because breast milk contains so many essential nutrients and immune that are not easily replaced.

The Duke team hopes that their discovery can help eliminate mother-child transmission altogether. The idea is that a vaccine that works like these B-cells can reduce the risk of infection.

Now that they've identified the antibodies, they can study them to see how they work to identify HIV and neutralize it.

The study was published in May 2012.

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Review Date: 
May 25, 2012
Last Updated:
August 17, 2012