Dole brand bananas are seen on display at the Safeway store in Wheaton, Maryland February 13, 2015. Reuters/Gary Cameron

Scientists have recently discovered a sugar-binding protein from bananas that could effectively restrain infections from viruses like HIV, hepatitis C and influenza. A new study suggests that bananas could lead to the development of new, more effective antiviral agents for infections.

The newly found protein, called BanLec, prevents viruses from entering host cells by binding to sugar molecules attached in coat proteins of the virus. The protein could trigger many processes, such as cell growth, wound healing and immune responses, for the survival of the patient from a virus-related disease.

Researchers said that the sugar molecules that BanLec targets are also common in HIV. BanLec grasps onto the molecules and effectively acts like a barrier to cell entry, preventing it from replicating and spreading in the body.

However, the beneficial effect of the protein can also lead to rapid spread of infection in some cases. BanLec can trigger immune cells to divide upon the presence of infection and lead to inflammation. The process could also allow the virus to gain a greater pool of vulnerable cells to infect, which can worsen the infection, according to the study published in the journal Cell.

The researchers conducted several tests to try to boost the beneficial effect of BanLec and separate its side effects to the immune cells. Results show that a single substitution in the protein’s building block, or amino acid, can effectively reduce the side effect and retain its antiviral activities.

“We were able to show that the modified BanLec still binds to T-cells, but does not activate them, as it is unable to cross-link the two surface receptors required for this purpose,” said study author Hans-Joachim Gabius, from Ludwig-Maximilians-University, in a press release.

The substitution of amino acid in BanLec has prevented the so-called “cross-linking” of receptors, which could lead to infection, while helping the protein to grasp the cell. The team has also found that the modified protein can effectively prevent not only the infection from HIV but also with hepatitis C and influenza viruses.

The researchers said that more studies are needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of the treatment to humans. The future studies will also focus on how the modified BanLec would affect other viruses.

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