Literally billions of dollars has been spent on HIV and AIDS research in the past four decades, and more than half a million people have died in the United States alone. But new research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates prevention may be as close and as simple as the nearest bee hive. Researchers discovered melittin, a toxin found in bee venom, can destroy the human immunodeficiency virus while leaving surrounding cells unharmed. The study appears in the newest issue of “Antiviral Therapy.”
“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,” said Joshua Hood, an instructor in medicine at Washington University.
Bee products have been used to cure ailments for hundreds of years, if not longer. Bees are considered master chemists of the animal kingdom, as almost every product associated with them offers some sort of benefit. Honey, for example, can not only be used as a sweet food product, but is also a great treatment for burns and wounds due to its high sugar concentration and natural antibacterial qualities. Likewise, royal jelly—the queen bee’s food source—is a great antioxidant, source of amino acid and antibiotic. People even use bee stings in the form of apitherapy to treat auto immune diseases, arthritis, gout and multiple sclerosis.
The same type of bee venom used in apitherapy contains the potent toxin studied by the Washington University professors. The potent toxin melittin pokes holes in the protective envelop surrounding HIV, as well as other viruses, thereby destroying it. The discovery varies from other HIV treatments in that it attacks the virus’ structure, preventing the infection. Other treatments aim to inhibit HIV’s ability to replicate, but do little to stop initial infection.
“We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” Hood said. “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.”
The scientists hope their discovery will lead to the development of a vaginal gel that may prevent the spread of HIV. But Hood also believes the finding eventually lead to therapies for existing HIV infections, particularly for those that are drug-resistant.
“The basic particle that we are using in these experiments was developed many years ago as an artificial blood product,” Hood said. “It didn’t work very well for delivering oxygen, but it circulates safely in the body and gives us a nice platform that we can adapt to fight different kinds of infections.”
According to the paper’s senior author, Samuel Wickline, melittin can also be used to kill tumor cells. And other viruses, such as hepatitis B and C, rely on the same protective envelope as HIV, and therefore could also be targeted by melittin.