Cows: an unlikely hero in the fight against HIV and herpes?
Omar Harris Vernon El-Halawani discusses recent findings of how cow mucus can help reduce HIV and Herpes infections and the science behind this study
Ambling in the countryside, cows seem like an unlikely saviour when it comes to reducing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and herpes infection rates. However, Hongji Yan of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden has demonstrated the possibility of just that.
Yan discovered that a lubricant stemming from the mucus of cow salivary glands could significantly reduce infection rates in human epithelial cells previously exposed to HIV and herpes. Typically, mucus lubricates epithelial tissues which layer our organs and body cavities, with its main function being the protection of the lungs from pathogens and foreign particles via mucociliary clearance. It is thought that mucin, the primary component of mucus, may have broad-spectrum antiviral properties.
Mucin, the primary component of mucus, may have broad-spectrum antiviral properties
Along with other scientists, Yan tested the potential of mucin at preventing HIV-1 (most common type of HIV) and herpes simplex 2 virus (HSV-2) infection. They did this by isolating mucus from the salivary glands of cows and deriving a gel from it. Following this, one set of cells was treated while a second control set remained untreated. These groups were then infected with either HIV-1, HSV-2, or nothing at all.
The results from the study showed that 100% of untreated cells became infected compared to 20% and 30% of cells exposed to HSV-2 and HIV-1, respectively. Evidence from the study showed the gel can bind to the gp120 glycoprotein on the surface of the HIV-1 viral envelope. Gp120 can attach to specific cell surface receptors facilitating entry of HIV-1 into the majority of human cells.
100% of untreated cells became infected compared to 20% and 30% of cells exposed to HSV-2 and HIV-1, respectively
Yan expects the gel to be highly useful in regions where HIV rates are high and condom use is low. Moreover, he has suggested “the next step is to try the same with pigs’ salivary mucus” which he believes would be scalable as a by-product of the meat industry.
Monica Gandhi, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, mentions that “a major benefit of such a product is that it is non-invasive, easy to use and offers the user better control of their sexual health”. Even so, further laboratory tests of the gel are needed before trials in animals and humans. Gandhi expects it will be at least five years before the product will be in mainstream use.