How bananas could help prevent the spread of HIV

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© Elke Esser/plainpicture/Corbis

In laboratory tests, a chemical derived from bananas proved as effective against HIV as two currently used pharmaceuticals, according to new research published in the March 19 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Dr. David Markovitz* and colleagues at the University of Michigan found that a lectin, or protein, in bananas may be able to interrupt the chain reaction that leads to HIV transmission. The chemical, called BanLec, limits the spread of HIV by binding to a protein in the virus and blocking its ability to spread infection to the body.

The naturally-derived chemical may be particularly promising because it is less likely to be overcome by virus mutation, the researchers point out. That is, with current anti-HIV drugs, the virus can mutate and become resistant; with lectins, the virus would likely need to mutate several times, making it far more difficult to overcome, the researchers say.

Though these preliminary findings are exciting, researchers concede that real-world application, possibly as a chemical component of vaginal microbicides or in conjunction with anti-retroviral medications, is still many years away. According to World Health Organization figures, as of December 2008 33.4 million people around the globe were living with HIV. There is a critical need for new strategies to staunch the spread of HIV, the study authors argue, pointing out that HIV infection far outpaces access to anti-retroviral medications, 2.5 to 1. Around the world, each year 2.7 million new people are infected with HIV, and 2 million die from the disease.

*Correction: Dr. Markovitz’s name was previously misspelled as Marvovitz.