July 26, 2010
By: David Gutierrez
A kind of protein naturally occurring in bananas may hamper the spread of HIV, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
The protein, known as BanLec, is in the family known as lectins. Lectins are able to identify and attach to foreign sugars, including those found in the outer coating of the virus that causes AIDS. The researchers found that HIV viruses in the presence of BanLec were blocked as effectively as viruses in the presence of two different modern HIV drugs.
Multiple applications of lectins’ newfound property suggest themselves. For example, the proteins could be incorporated into topically applied vaginal microbicides to reduce women’s risk of HIV infection.
“The explosion of AIDS in poorer countries continues to be a bad problem because of tremendous human suffering and the cost of treating it,” senior author David Markovitz, said. “That’s particularly true in developing countries where women have little control over sexual encounters, so development of a long-lasting, self-applied microbicide is very attractive.”
Researchers also hope to find a way to use lectins to prevent the HIV virus from integrating into host cells even if it does gain entry into the body.
“The problem with some HIV drugs is that the virus can mutate and become resistant, but that’s much harder to do in the presence of lectins,” co-author Michael D. Swanson said. “Lectins can bind to the sugars found on different spots of the HIV-1 envelope, and presumably it will take multiple mutations for the virus to get around them.”
Although AIDS is especially a problem in Third World countries, it also remains a serious health problem in the United States. An estimated 57,000 women in the United States are infected with HIV, along with three times as many men. AIDS is the single biggest killer of African American women between the ages of 35 and 34.