Cow milk against AIDS?

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Nov. 13, 2006

A very special protein that's abundant in regular cow milk may soon be used to prevent the HIV-virus from entering the body.

Research conducted at the AMC, the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam has shown that the cow milk protein lactoferrin has the potential to stop the virus from infecting the human host.

At present, these are lab results, but in the long run clinical application is a definite possibility.

"The HIV-virus, nasty though it may be, is a very clever little bug," says Fedde Groot, a Dutch human retro-virologist, who recently presented his doctoral essay on the subject at the University of Amsterdam.

"The main problem is that the virus constantly changes shape, which makes the development of a vaccine nearly impossible. But there is more: HIV can use certain cells from the immune system as a kind of Trojan horse! Thus it enters the body undetected, and can start causing havoc before any of the usual defence systems spring into action."

Guardians
The 'Trojan horse' in this case are the so-called 'dendritic cells'. These immune cells function as the human body's first line of defence. When any kind of pathogen enters the body, dendritic cells act as guardians at the gates: they identify the intruder as dangerous, catch it and drag it off to the lymph glands. The latter function as the immune system's headquarters and will, if the offensive stranger indeed poses a threat, launch an all-out attack. Case closed.

But HIV can sneak in undetected by the dendritic cells who don't recognise this deadly attacker as dangerous. Worse, they allow the AIDS virus to attach itself to special 'receptors' on the outside of the dendritic cell. It's as if the cell carries a backpack with a bomb inside without even knowing it.

The story turns really nasty when another pathogen, even a totally innocent one, enters the body. This time, the poor, well-meaning dendritic cell will recognise the offender, and by rushing off with his catch to the lymph glands he automatically turns himself into a deadly Trojan horse. Once HIV has arrived in the lymph glands, the slow breakdown of the entire immune system can begin. Dr Groot continues:

"Ideally, you want to prevent the AIDS virus from entering the body in the first place, so it would be best to somehow make the Trojan horse strategy impossible for HIV. This we seem to be able to do with lactoferrin. "Its discovery was a bit of a lucky break, and a matter of trying lots of different candidates".

Lactoferrin, as it turns out, is able to attach itself to the exact same receptors on the outer skin of the dendritic cells as does the HIV-virus. When lactoferrin has taken its place, HIV is powerless and infection simply doesn't happen. It may seem to good to be true but in vitro (in the lab) lactoferrin really works this way. And there is even more good news: Lactoferrin is also a very strong HIV-growth inhibitor, so even if the virus somehow escapes, it will have a hard time duplicating itself.


Drinking milk does NOT work
Still, Dr Groot wants to make one thing perfectly clear:
"This discovery does not, I repeat NOT, mean that drinking lots of milk will protect you from getting AIDS. Lactoferrin will simply be broken down in the stomach."

"On the other hand, using lactoferrin as a microbicide is a real option. This is especially important for women in those parts of the world where men refuse to use condoms, which by the way is still the best protection against AIDS."

"If these women can use a discrete lactoferrin-loaded lubricant they can protect themselves without their partner ever needing to know."

Now, the rest of the research - the development of a practical application for lactoferrin - is up to the pharmaceutical industry, but Dr Groot is hopeful:

"Lactoferrin has a lot going for it: It's cheap, it's abundant and non-toxic. After all, we humans drink milk all the time. It would be wonderful if clinical application is really possible."
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