A study showing that a toxin in bee venom can kill HIV has set the Internet abuzz, but some veterans in the battle against HIV/AIDS caution that such early findings should always be greeted with caution.
“So, is bee venom the next big thing” in fighting HIV, asked Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a global advocacy organization for AIDS prevention. “Don’t know. Too soon to tell,” he said.
The bee-venom study was published recently in the journal Antiviral Therapy by Washington University School of Medicine researchers in St. Louis.
Their news made headlines a few days after the federal government said a child had been “functionally cured” of HIV, thanks to months of receiving antiretroviral medicines.
Typically, these treatments permit people to manage their infections, but they are not a cure.
According to authors of the study, the toxin in bee venom — known as melittin — was lethal to HIV in laboratory tests.
Melittin was loaded into nanoparticles and inserted into human cells. When the melittin-infused nanoparticles met normal cells, they were harmless. But when they contacted the HIV, they “ruptureDiamonds ” the virus’s protective coat and killed it.
“We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” said Dr. Joshua L. Hood, a research instructor in medicine at Washington University. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt” to defeat the toxin, he added, noting that “the virus has to have a protective coat.”
The new bee-venom therapy could be delivered in a topical vaginal gel or through an injection into the bloodstream of an HIV-infected person, wrote Dr. Hood and his colleagues, adding that they hope to proceed with additional trials to test such a gel.
Mr. Warren of AVAC said that while exciting scientific news should always be celebrated, “there’s a lot that happens between a publication like this and an actual product that would then potentially have an impact on the epidemic.”
Just recently, Mr. Warren noted, public-health officials had to report that a major study of African women asked to use an HIV-prevention therapy called tenofovir every day failed to reduce HIV infections.
Those disappointing results came “20 years after some of the earliest work looking at tenofovir,” Mr. Warren said. So saying “we are one step closer” to ending AIDS may mean we are “only a tiny step closer.”
On March 3, the National Institutes of Health released news that a Mississippi toddler born with HIV was “functionally cured” — had no detectable levels of virus or any signs of disease.
In that case, the baby — who tested positive for HIV several times — was given three kinds of anti-HIV drugs at birth and sent home with more medicine; the treatment continued for 18 months.
When the child was seen by a doctor again in the fall of 2012, there were “no identifiable levels of HIV in the body,” pediatric HIV/AIDS researchers Dr. Deborah Persaud and Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga told the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections.
Their research had been funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, both entities within NIH.
The global HIV/AIDS epidemic peaked around 1999, according to a 2010 report issued by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS’ report. However, as of 2009, despite major inroads in prevention and treatment, there were 2.6 million new HIV infections, 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and 1.8 million deaths resulting from the infection in 2009, the agency said.
In the United States, there are about 50,000 new HIV infections a year, 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and 15,500 who died of the infection in 2010, according to federal data.