Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
According to a new report in the journal Antiviral Therapy, researchers from the Washington University in St. Louis have found that nanoparticles loaded with bee venom are capable of destroying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) while leaving the body´s cells unharmed. In a radical departure from traditional attempts to treat HIV, the research team says that the nanoparticles could be used to develop a prophylactic gel capable of stopping the spread of AIDS.
“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 lead author Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, a researcher and instructor at WUSTL.
The key ingredient in bee venom is a toxin called melittin, which is able to break through the tough protective envelope that surrounds viruses like HIV. Besides being effective against viruses, other research has shown that melittin-loaded nanoparticles are also effective tumor-cell assassins.
In addition to killing viruses, the new study is promising because it shows that the nanoparticles do not harm normal cells. To accomplish this, the research team engineered protective ℠bumpers´ to the nanoparticles´ surface so that the particles harmlessly bounce off when they come into contact with much larger body cells.
However, since viruses are much smaller than the nanoparticle, the HIV viral bodies slip between the bumpers, allowing bee toxin to access the virus.
According to Hood, this new approach differs from the traditional way that most anti-HIV drugs work, which is by inhibiting the virus´s ability to reproduce. The conventional strategy is flawed because it does not put down the initial infection, and some strains have been found to reproduce anyway.
“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 new HIV treatment was made possible by the nanoparticle delivery mechanism, which was developed in previous experiments for other purposes.
“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.”
While it was not explicitly discussed in the journal report, Hood explained that a prophylactic gel containing the engineered particles could easily be adapted to be used as birth control as well. However, in some cases couples may only want protection from HIV.
“We also are looking at this for couples where only one of the partners has HIV, and they want to have a baby,” Hood said. “These particles by themselves are actually very safe for sperm, for the same reason they are safe for vaginal cells.”
Because the nanoparticles themselves are not HIV-specific, the team is hoping this treatment can be applied to other viruses as well. For example, hepatitis B and C have the same kind of defensive envelope and would be also potentially be susceptible to melittin-loaded nanoparticles.