Got milk?

New tests point to a fat compound in milk as a possible STD fighter.

Published July 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A fat compound in milk has shown the potential to thwart sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, according to new research.

Dr. Halldor Thormar, a virologist at the University of Iceland, conducted laboratory tests on a fat compound called monocaprin and discovered that, when dissolved in a gel, the compound was able to destroy HIV and herpes viruses, as well as the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, all within a minute. It took the gel just five minutes to destroy chlamydia -- the sexually transmitted bacteria linked to infertility -- and it also cut the number of white cells in semen, which play a key role in the sexual transmission of HIV. Thomar reported his research in the June issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.

"What's new here is that we've successfully put this compound into a pharmaceutical formulation" -- the gel -- "in a way that could be useful to humans," Thormar says from his office in Reykjavik.

According to Thormar, the promising fat compound is found in cow's milk and coconut milk, and in higher concentrations in mother's milk. He says the compound could be useful as a preventive treatment for some sexually transmitted infections and a remedy for others. "It could possibly be used as a prevention for HIV," he says. "Herpes you could treat locally because [the compound] works on the mucosa membrane." Because the fat compound was also able to halt the movement of sperm, it has the potential to work as a contraceptive.

It sounds too good to be true -- and it might be, according to Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, an STD researcher in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "I'd be very suspicious," he says.

In the past, other substances have shown an ability to kill off sexually transmitted bacteria and viruses, but when tested on animals they turned out to be toxic. What makes monocaprin especially promising is that it comes from a substance -- milk -- already familiar to the human body. Zenilman is still skeptical. "You can find compounds that destroy these types of bacteria. But is it irritating to cells? Does it work in the real environment?"

Thormar hopes to find out. Since completing his initial lab tests, he has tested the gel in safety studies on rabbits, and it caused no irritation in the animals. The process will require further animal testing, followed by clinical trials on humans. "There are two aspects," Thormar agrees with Zenilman, saying, "first you have to make sure it's not harmful. Then you have to ensure that it works in a real situation."

Zenilman remains doubtful about the compound's disease-killing capabilities. "They look great in the lab, but when you start putting them into patients in clinical trials, it's a whole different story."

Thormar says he will now seek assistance from a major pharmaceutical company in the United States or Britain to begin clinical trials.

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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