By Kiara Honma (American School in Japan)
Can bees give us more than honey? Scientists at the Washington University of Medicine in St. Louis have discovered a toxin in bee venom called Melittin which may lead to a preventative topical gel to fight against the HIV virus.
Human immunodeficiency virus, otherwise known as HIV, is the virus which leads to AIDS, a condition in which humans experience progressive failure of the immune system. In 2011, approximately 34 million people were infected with HIV worldwide. Of these, approximately 17.2 million were men, 16.8 million were women and 3.4 million were less than 15 years old. Infection with HIV may occur by the transfer of blood, semen, breast milk, or other bodily fluids. The danger with HIV lies in the fact that many don’t express symptoms until it’s too late. The infected may experience flu-like symptoms within a month or two after the virus has entered the body. HIV symptoms may include fever, chills, night sweats, muscle aches, fatigue and swollen lympth nodes. In a study provided by aids.gov, 1 in 5 people living with HIV are unaware of their infection. This means that all of their sexual partners are also unaware, and the disease spreads readily.
According to studies conducted by aids.gov, gay, bisexual, and men who are sexually active with other men (MSM) remain the population most severely affected, and as a result, most at risk of contracting the HIV virus. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that MSM account for a mere 2% of the U.S male population aged 13 and older, but account for more than 50% of all new HIV infections annually from 200 to 2009.
HIV and AIDS have killed thousands of people all over the world and it is a prominent issue in countries of Africa, and South America. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region most affected by the HIV virus. In 2012, an estimated 68% of all HIV cases and 66% of all deaths occurred in this region. Finding a cure for HIV can stop the spread of AIDS and save so many lives in the future. This could be a crucial finding for the safety of future generations if the spreading
HIV was first clinically observed in 1981 in the United States, and has since become a worldwide issue. To this day, there is no cure of HIV where the virus is killed, but the surrounding cells are left unharmed.
Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, a research instructor in medicine said, “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.” Bee products such as Propolis, Royal Jelly, Caffeic acid, honey and venom may have applications in cancer treatment and prevention, and doctors at the University of Zagreb have found that been products significantly decreased the growth of tumors.
[Melittin, found in bee venom, can poke holes in the protective cellular envelope]
Nanoparticles (purple) carrying the melittin toxin (green) fuse with HIV (small circles), destroying the virus’ protective envelope. Molecular bumpers prevent the nanoparticles from harming the body’s normal cells, which are much larger in size (Joshua L Hood. MD, PHD, Washington University) surrounding the HIV virus, as well as other viruses. According to the study, the nanoparticles don’t harm healthy cells because of the “protective bumpers” around each particle. What this means is that when the particles come into contact with normal, healthy cells, the particles simply bounce off. HIV however, is even smaller than the nanoparticles, so HIV cells can fit between the bumpers and comes into contact with the surface of the nanoparticle, where the Melittin toxin awaits.
While most HIV treatments work to prevent the spreading and replication of the HIV virus, this one looks to directly attack the vital part of its structure. “We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” Hood said in a press release. “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.”
This discovery has proved yet another success story in the medical world recently. A baby girl born in Mississippi appears to be cured of HIV, a medical first! A new report published by the New England Journal of Medicine makes clear that the girl, now 3 years old, was infected by her HIV positive birth mother while in the womb. Just 30 hours after the baby girl was born, Mississippi doctors started the child on three powerful medicines, before even confirming infection. Within a month, the baby’s virus fell to undetectable levels. She remained on medication until she was 18 months old, and 10 months later, doctors could find no sign of infection even though her mother had stopped administering her medication.
Doctors refuse to call it a cure, uncertain about how much time is necessary to declare someone completely free of HIV infection. But, “at minimum, the baby is in a clear remission,” stated Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Could this be the first of many HIV cases to be cured? We’ll have to wait for further studies to find out, but it sure does give us hope.
Beyond just preventive measures, doctors see the potential for treating already existing HIV cases, before it can spread to AIDS. Hood theorizes that the nanoparticles could be injected into a person’s blood, in order to clear the existing HIV cells from the bloodstream. In future years, scientists hope that Melittin could be used to treat other infections viruses such as Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, as they reply on the same protective membrane layer which could be targeted and destroyed by administering Melittin-loaded nanoparticles into the bloodstream. This could be the beginning of groundbreaking discoveries in the medical world.
The use of this technology in humans has yet to be explored, and will require years of further research and clinical trials. But doctors are confident that in 10 or 15 years, a cure of HIV may be available in the medical world. The first steps have been taken and there is hope that scientists may have found the cure to a global pandemic.