Breast milk found protective against Zika and Usutu viruses

The benefits of human milk are mediated by multiple nutritional, trophic, and immunological components, able to promote infant’s growth, maturation of its immature gut, and to confer protection against infections. Despite these widely recognized properties, breast-feeding represents an important mother-to-child transmission route of some viral infections. Different studies show that some flaviviruses can occasionally be detected in breast milk, but their transmission to the newborn is still controversial. Researchers from the University of Turin aimed to investigate the antiviral activity of human milk (HM) in its different stages of maturation against two emerging flaviviruses, namely zika virus (ZIKV) and Usutu virus (USUV) and to verify whether HM-derived extracellular vesicles (EVs) and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) contribute to the milk protective effect.

Colostrum, transitional and mature milk samples were collected from 39 healthy donors. The aqueous fractions were tested in vitro with specific antiviral assays and EVs and GAGs were derived and characterized. HM showed antiviral activity against ZIKV and USUV at all the stages of lactation with no significant differences in the activity of colostrum, transitional or mature milk. Mechanism of action studies demonstrated that colostrum does not inactivate viral particles, but it hampers the binding of both flaviviruses to cells. The researchers also demonstrated that HM-EVs and HM-GAGs contribute, at least in part, to the anti-ZIKV and anti-USUV action of HM.

Evaluation of the anti-ZIKV (A) and anti-USUV (B) activity of human colostrum with the immunofluorescence assay detecting the dsRNA intermediate of replication and the flavivirus protein E

Cells and viruses (MOI = 3) were treated before and during the infection with the dilution of colostrum corresponding the ID90 in the virus inhibition assay. After 30 h of infection, cells were fixed and subjected to immunofluorescence.  

This study discloses the intrinsic antiviral activity of HM against ZIKV and USUV and demonstrates the contribution of two bioactive components in mediating its protective effect. Since the potential infectivity of HM during ZIKV and USUV infection is still unclear, these data support the World Health Organization recommendations about breast-feeding during ZIKV infection and could contribute to producing new guidelines for a possible USUV epidemic.

Francese R, Civra A, Donalisio M, Volpi N, Capitani F, Sottemano S, et al. (2020) Anti-Zika virus and anti-Usutu virus activity of human milk and its components. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 14(10): e0008713. [article]

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