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Breast Milk Antibodies Fight HIV

?Researchers have moved closer to developing a vaccine for the HIV virus after finding that breast milk from HIV-infected mothers can protect infants from getting the virus.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina have just found that certain cells in breast milk can produce neutralizing antibodies that can help prevent the virus that causes AIDS. Research has shown that one out of ten HIV infected women will transmit the HIV virus and after isolating the antibodies from B cells (immune cells) from breast milk of infected mothers in Malawi, they found that the antibodies can protect infants from being affected by HIV. The finding contradicts prior research that maintained that exclusive breast feeding by women who were infected with HIV does not reduce the progression of AIDS or other type of illnesses in infants.

Dr. Sallie Permar, assistant professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Duke and senior author of the study said "That is remarkable, because nursing children are exposed multiple times each day during their first year of life. We are asking if there is an immune response that protects 90 percent of infants, and could we harness that response to develop immune system protection during breastfeeding for mothers infected with HIV-1.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommend that HIV-infected mothers not to breast feed their babies, the researchers at Duke believe their latest findings will help medical scientists to develop a vaccine against HIV in the future. The Duke team noted that because their work helped establish that B cells in breast milk can produce HIV-neutralizing antibodies, it also suggests that enhancing the response or getting more B-cells to produce those helpful antibodies would be a beneficial way to explore effective HIV-1 vaccine development. The antibodies isolated by the Duke team are the first HIV antibodies ever successfully isolated from breast milk that have reacted with HIV-1 and it is important to understand how they work to protect babies from mucosal transmission during breastfeeding. Professor Permar added that "We're excited about this finding because the immune cells in mucosal compartments can cross-talk and traffic between compartments.  So the antibodies we found in breast milk indicate that these same antibodies are able to be elicited in other tissues.”

Like the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization also recommends that HIV positive mothers should not breastfeed their infants, and if there are no other safe and sustainable replacements for breast feeding an infant, the organization recommends that HIV-infected mothers should only breastfeed during the first few months of an infant’s life. As noted by the researchers, the brightest spot in the new findings is the possibility of developing an effective anti-HIV vaccine. The Duke team concluded that "Successfully characterizing antibodies from such a fragile medium required global coordination and expertise across multiple fields and is a hopeful testament to the incredible amounts of work and leadership currently under way to fight this devastating disease."

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