Going Bananas to Prevent HIV

By Nick Gubitosi

Two weeks ago (March 19, 2010), scientists from the University of Michigan published a study about an ingredient known as BanLec which is derived from bananas and acts as a potent inhibitor of the HIV virus.  What stands out about BanLec is that it is a cheaper form of therapy that may provide a wider range of protection when compared to current anti-retrovirals which are commonly synthetic and made ineffective after small mutations to the virus.  The cost and effectiveness of BanLec make it a promising candidate for the future prevention of HIV and AIDS, giving it the potential to save millions of lives.

BanLec is a type of lectin found in bananas that can identify foreign invaders such as a virus and attach to it.  A lectin is a naturally occurring chemical in plants that is of great interest to scientists because of its ability to halt the chain of reaction that leads to a variety of infections.  The researchers in this study discovered that BanLec inhibits HIV infection by binding to the virus’s protein envelope, therefore blocking it from entering the body.

According to Michael D. Swanson, the lead author of the study, “The problem with some HIV drugs is that the virus can mutate and become resistant, but that is much harder to do in the presence of lectins.”  He goes on to explain that the lectins work by binding to sugars found all over the envelope of the HIV virus, and because of this the virus would have to go through multiple mutations for the lectin to stop working.  This makes drugs such as BanLec more effective than some current anti-retrovirals which could become ineffective after one mutation to the virus.

So far all tests have been conducted in the laboratory, but Swanson is currently working on making BanLec suitable for human patients.  Its clinical use is still considered to be far away but researchers believe it could ultimately be used as a self applied microbicide for the prevention of HIV infection.

While BanLec is no cure to AIDS, the information gained from this study is very exciting because according to researchers, millions of lives could be saved over the course of a few years with just a moderately successful treatment.

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3 thoughts on “Going Bananas to Prevent HIV”

  1. This is really interesting. I wonder how the microbicide would be applied…was there anything about using it for currently infected people or is it more of a preventative medicine?

  2. According to the article they think the microbicide would be applied to the genitals and would be used only as a preventative drug to stop the spread of HIV, while people who are already infected would probably not benefit from it.

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