Scientists believe they may have discovered an unlikely weapon in the fight against the global HIV/AIDS epidemic: bee venom.
According to researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, bee venom contains a powerful toxin called “melittin” that can effectively kill the HIV virus while leaving the surrounding cells unharmed. Now that they’ve isolated the toxin, they’re using it to develop a vaginal gel to prevent the spread of HIV — a new tool that will hopefully help stop the transmission of the virus in places with high rates of infection:
“Our hope is that in places where HIV is running rampant, people could use this gel as a preventive measure to stop the initial infection,” says Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, a research instructor in medicine. [...]
According to Hood, an advantage of this approach is that the nanoparticle attacks an essential part of the virus’ structure. In contrast, most anti-HIV drugs inhibit the virus’s ability to replicate. But this anti-replication strategy does nothing to stop initial infection, and some strains of the virus have found ways around these drugs and reproduce anyway.
“We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” Hood says. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to that. The virus has to have a protective coat, a double-layered membrane that covers the virus.”
Beyond prevention in the form of a vaginal gel, Hood also sees potential for using nanoparticles with melittin as therapy for existing HIV infections, especially those that are drug-resistant. The nanoparticles could be injected intravenously and, in theory, would be able to clear HIV from the blood stream.
Researchers haven’t yet explored all of melittin’s potential to be used for contraceptive purposes, but Hood pointed out that the gel could likely be adapted to target sperm as well as HIV — essentially creating a spermicide that could protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. But as of now, the gel is safe for both sperm and vaginal cells, and may be particularly useful for HIV-positive individuals who want to safely conceive.
And, since melittin could also help combat viruses other than HIV, bee venom could have broader implications for public health efforts. Melittin may be able to similarly destroy the hepatitis B and C viruses.
Bee venom’s important toxin is just the latest unexpected breakthrough in HIV treatment and prevention efforts. Last week, scientists reported that they may have “functionally cured” a two-year-old child of her HIV infection by aggressively treating her infection from the time of her birth. Unfortunately, the automatic cuts that recently began taking effect as a result of the sequestration may hamper future HIV research, as scientists will now have fewer resources to invest in research projects focused on unlocking the keys to treating the epidemic.