Sexual Health news - HIV

Could breast milk hold the key to an HIV vaccine?


The rate of infants who contract HIV by breast-feeding from their infected mothers is surprisingly low at just 10 percent. This fact gave researchers from Duke University Medical Center good reason to study breast milk to find immune cells that may be powerful against the virus.

And they appear to have done just that, according to a report in the journal PLoS One.

Authors of the study said they discovered that certain immune cells are able to weaken HIV, thereby strengthening the immune system's response to the virus.

"Our work helped establish that these B cells in breast milk can produce HIV-neutralizing antibodies, so enhancing the response or getting more mucosal B-cells to produce those helpful antibodies would be useful, and this is a possible route to explore for HIV-1 vaccine development," said senior author Sallie Permar, M.D., Ph.D.

She specified that it's important to focus on mucosal sites in the body, since those are where infection typically occurs, in the vagina or gastrointestinal tract.

"We're excited about this finding because the immune cells in mucosal compartments can cross-talk and traffic between compartments," Permar said.

What this means is that the breast milk-derived antibodies may be easily transferred to locations in the body where the virus is most likely to be introduced, presenting an opportunity for effective vaccine development.

The researchers noted that their work may be helpful in curbing the rates of mother-to-child HIV infection if they can pinpoint the responses needed for adequate immune protection against the virus.

In the meantime, HIV-infected mothers should consult with their healthcare providers on how to safely nourish and protect their babies.