Your favorite oblong fruit might be even healthier than you realized. According to The Gazette (Montreal) newspaper, a new study has found that chemicals commonly found in bananas are as potent in preventing HIV as two synthetic anti-HIV drugs. Researchers say the findings could lead to a cheap new component for applied microbicides that prevent sexual transmission of HIV.
The miracle substance in bananas is called BanLec, a type of lectin, which are the sugar-binding proteins found in a variety of plants. Scientists have long been interested in lectins because of their ability to halt the chain reaction that leads to certain viral infections. In the case of BanLec, it works by binding naturally to the sugar-rich envelope that encases the HIV virus, thus blocking its 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," said lead author Michael D. Swanson. "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."
Swanson and his colleagues noted that even modest success in developing BanLec into a vaginal or anal microbicide could save millions of lives. In fact, 20 percent coverage with a microbicide that is only 60 percent effective against HIV may prevent up to 2.5 million HIV infections in three years. Furthermore, a BanLec ointment would be much cheaper to produce and distribute than most current anti-retroviral medications that require the production of synthetic components.
One thing's for sure: new ways of stopping the transmission of HIV are desperately needed. Condoms are effective, but they are often used incorrectly or inconsistently, and in many cultures and developing countries women are not always in control of their sexual encounters. The introduction of a cheap, long-lasting, self-applied ointment derived naturally from bananas could change all of that.