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Banana Protein May Be Virus Killer

Organic bananas are pictured in an organic supermarket in Berlin, Germany, January 2013. (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)
Organic bananas are pictured in an organic supermarket in Berlin, Germany, January 2013. (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)
Banana Protein May Help Kill Viruses
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Bananas are often called the perfect food.

They are nutritious, a good source of all kinds of vitamins and minerals. They can help fight depression and ward off muscle cramps. They can lower blood pressure and protect against heart attacks.

To most people, bananas taste great. They add natural sweetness to some baked goods and health drinks. And bananas come in their own protective, biodegradable packaging.

So, there are many reasons to eat bananas.

And now there is another.

Bananas, it turns out, have a secret weapon. And this secret weapon could protect against viruses.

Scientists are now taking a protein found in bananas and turning it into a drug that may someday fight viral infections.

The secret weapon is called banana lectin, or BanLec. BanLec is a protein that attaches to sugar molecules and keeps viruses out of cells. A virus cannot infect what it cannot enter.

The team of researchers published their study in the journal Cell. In their article, the researchers say it could be one of the first antiviral agents to treat a wide-range of viruses. These viruses include HIV, hepatitis and even the common flu virus.

Senior co-author of the study is David Markovitz at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He warns that you can't get the benefits of BanLec simply by eating a bunch of bananas.

Stomach acids, he explains, will chew up the protein before it has a chance to fight infections in the body. BanLec is a modified, or changed, protein.

Markovitz explains.

"Remember, when you are eating the banana, then the protein which, by the way, is not our modified protein, it is an actual protein; it is probably going to be chewed up by the stomach acid. So, we very much doubt that eating bananas will help you."

Discovery by accident
Markovitz says researchers investigated the banana protein for a very special use. Women could use a type of the protein before sex to protect them against HIV infection. But the researchers found that the protein fought off a number of viruses. Viruses simply die if they can't infect cells.

At this point, Markovitz says, there are no plans to test the BanLec protein on humans. He says he and the other researchers are ambitious, meaning they want to be successful with this drug.

But, Markovitz adds, they also need to be careful, or be cautious, to avoid doing any harm. It’s early days, he says.

"We're trying to help people with their health, not harm them. And so it's good to be cautious about where we are going. You know, we're also very ambitious to make things work well, but we're not there. You know, we're early on still."

It may be early on, but these researchers may want to hurry. The world’s banana supply in currently in serious trouble.

A deadly fungus, now called Tropical Race 4, has been killing banana crops around the world. TR4 started in Malaysia in the 1990s and in 2013 moved across Southeast Asia and into Australia. Now the fungus has moved into Africa and is killing banana crops in Mozambique.

A fruit seller arranges bananas at his stall along a road in Jammu, India November 2011. (AP FILE PHOTO)
A fruit seller arranges bananas at his stall along a road in Jammu, India November 2011. (AP FILE PHOTO)

Today, bananas are grown in more than 100 countries.

As of 2013, many websites rank India as the world’s top producer of bananas.

Bananas are ranked fourth among the world's food crops in monetary value.

Mozambique officials say bananas bring in more than $70 million per year.

We Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Are bananas part of your diet? Do you have a special recipe or do you just peel and eat? Let us know in the Comments Section.

Jessica Berman wrote this story for VOA News from Washington, D.C. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.


Words in This Story

biodegradable adj. capable of being slowly destroyed and broken down into very small parts by natural processes, bacteria, etc.

stomach acids n. digestive secretions of the stomach glands

chew v. to injure, destroy, or consume as if by chewing

cautiousadj. careful about avoiding danger or risk

ambitiousadj. having a desire to be successful