Is it possible that breast milk contains the magic potion which kills the virus that causes AIDS? According to new research, that’s a distinct possibility.
A recent study published in PLoS Pathogens, which was conducted by researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, found that mice did not contract HIV after ingesting virus-tainted breast milk.
Moreover, the researchers found, the breast milk actually killed the virus.
The mice used in the study had previously been injected with human cells to reconstitute their bodies, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte reported. Other reports said the mice were injected with human bone marrow, liver and thymus tissues so they would have fully functional human immune systems and be nearly as susceptible to the HIV virus.
It’s the first study to examine the effect of breast milk on HIV in a mammalian model. Prior research has only been done in test tubes.
“The results of these experiments highlight the potent HIV inhibitory activity of normal human breast milk and demonstrate that the in vitro HIV inhibitory activity of human breast milk is also capable of efficiently preventing oral transmission of cell-free HIV,” the study said.
Breast milk serves a ‘protective role’
Researchers who conducted the study hope it demonstrates that it’s safe for an HIV-positive woman who is taking anti-retrovirals to breastfeed her children, even though for years they have been told not to do so if infected.
“[O]ur results highlight the protective role of human breast milk against HIV transmission and suggest that components in both the skim milk and lipid fractions may contribute to its HIV inhibitory activity,” the study said.
Dr. Viktor Garcia, the study’s senior author, said in a press release that this study will help “close this important door to the spread of AIDS.”
“No child should ever be infected with HIV because it is breastfed. Breastfeeding provides critical nutrition and protection from other infections, especially where clean water for infant formula is scarce,” he said in a press release to the university. “Understanding how HIV is transmitted to infants and children despite the protective effects of milk will help us close this important door to the spread of AIDS.”
Study results provide the path ahead
Angela Wahl, a post-doctoral researcher at UNC School of Medicine and lead author of the paper, said, “These results are highly significant because they show that breast milk can completely block oral transmission of both forms of HIV that are found in the breast milk of HIV-infected mothers: virus particles and virus-infected cells.
Wahl added: “This refutes the ‘Trojan horse’ hypothesis which says that HIV in cells is more stubborn against the body’s own innate defenses than HIV in virus particles.”
Despite the encouraging study, it’s not a certainty that mothers with HIV who breastfeed their children won’t pass the virus along. But Wahl said the research is, essentially, a good starting point for further study because it lays the foundation for the next step – figuring out what component of breast milk actually provides the protection. To do that, researchers will now have to study breast milk from mothers who did pass along the virus and the milk of mothers who did not, to find the difference.
“What we have shown is that breast milk is indeed a protective agent, so it should not be denied even to children of HIV-infected women,” she told Fox News. “What we know is that infants who acquire HIV during breastfeeding weren’t infected at the time of birth, and when you look at the virus that eventually infects the infant and the virus in mother’s breast milk, it’s the same. But it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be the result of [contact with] blood.”