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Mother's milk contains HIV blocking compounds: Study

Sugar-containing compounds in breast milk reduces the transmission of HIV to babies.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2005 20:47 IST

Sugar-containing compounds in breast milk may reduce the transmission of HIV to babies, suggests a lab-based study.

The findings do not mean that it is a good idea for HIV-positive mothers to breastfeed their infants, say the researchers, as the virus can still be transmitted this way. But if the results hold true in further studies, they could lead to new ways to block transmission of HIV between adults during sex.

Milk is already known to contain some substances that quell HIV.

'Breast milk has all sorts of good stuff in it, such as antibodies from the mother,' Louise Kuhn, who studies HIV transmission at Columbia University in New York, was quoted by Nature, as saying.

Now Bill Paxton at the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues have homed in on anti-HIV compounds in milk that seem particularly powerful. They say the secret ingredient is Lewis X, a type of sugar also found in saliva and blood.

HIV infects CD4 T cells, which are a key part of the immune system, and the destruction of these cells leads to AIDS. Some researchers think the virus can get to the CD4 cells by binding to a different set of immune cells known as dendritic cells.

"If this is an inhibitor, why do babies get HIV through breast milk?" he asks. Every year, about 200,000 infants acquire the virus from their mother's milk, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of infants with HIV-positive mothers catch the virus after being breastfed for two years.

Paxton counters that without protective substances such as the sugar, babies would probably get HIV more often.

Paxton now plans to investigate whether women who have high levels of the sugar compounds in their breast milk are less likely to transmit HIV to their offspring. "It's not the easiest study to do," he says, in part because ethics demand that infants be protected from HIV transmission where possible.

"If it does work as a microbicide, it would be a great tool," says McDonald.

First Published: Oct 22, 2005 20:47 IST