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Students announce AIDS breakthrough
Published on 2 Oct. 2008 1:44 AM IST
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In what is being described as a breakthrough in AIDS prevention, a group of engineering students and a medical doctor is reported to have designed a simple ‘shield’ to block mothers transmitting the HIV virus to their babies while breastfeeding. If successful, the development has major implications for efforts to prevent the spread of HIV in India in terms of not only the number of babies saved, but also cost-effectiveness. HIV-infected mothers who have no option but to breastfeed their babies contribute to the global spread of HIV, and scientists have long fretted over how to stop it. The breakthrough promises protection to the estimated 700,000 babies who are born each year to HIV-positive mothers - the overwhelming majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa, but many thousands in India too. After a month’s research at the International Design Development Summit (IDDS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US in August, a team of five engineering students and an experienced medical doctor recently announced that they have found a simple yet effective way of disinfecting breast milk by modifying an existing nipple shield. According to one of the researchers, Stephen Gerrard of Cambridge University, the team was initially given the task of finding a practical way to “deactivate” the HIV virus by heating mother’s milk. “We quickly established the concern that this may be too lengthy for many women in developing countries, so they might not have the time for it,” said Gerrard in a statement to his sponsors, the international volunteer group Engineers Without Borders. The team then came across a research group at Drexel University in Philadelphia which had identified a compound called Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS), which could kill the HIV virus quickly. “They have been studying SDS for use in a filter in a baby bottle, but we came up with a way to make its use much more practical,” said Gerrard. Bringing in the Drexel researchers into the project, the team made slight changes to an existing nipple shield so that it could be used to add SDS to breast milk. “We found that if we added a non-woven material like cotton-wool or felt containing SDS to the nipple shield and had the baby feeding on that, the HIV virus could be de-activated without having to go through the heat treatment,” said Gerrard. Although the team has filed an application at the US Patent Office, a spokesman for Engineers Without Borders UK said there was “no way” the research would be used to make a profit. “Our whole approach is of not-for-profit research, and it’s the same with the IDDS at MIT, so there’s no way the research will be used for making profit,” Chris Cleaver, a Cambridge University engineer, told IANS. Gerrard says that although a definite breakthrough, more research is being conducted at Drexel to establish that the majority of HIV virus is de-activated when the milk passes through the cotton-wool. If successful, the team expects the nipple shield to be available for about $2 and last a month. With the SDS filter costing about 20 cents (Rs.8) a day (they have to be changed every day), the cost of prevention would tot up to around 27 cents (about Rs.10) per day. India’s Health Secretary Naresh Dayal was quoted saying last year that there may be 70,000 children infected with HIV in India, with nearly 21,000 new infections occurring among children every year. Another estimate, given in a government report submitted to the UN this year, puts the figure of infected Indian children at 3.8 percent of the total HIV population - which would take the figure up to at least 91,000.

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