Bee venom could prevent the spread of HIV. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that the toxin in bee venom, called melittin, puts holes in the protective protein coating that surrounds viruses and bacteria, killing them without harming healthy human cells. The finding could lead to the development of a vaginal gel that’s easier for some women to use than trying to convince their partner to wear a condom. It could also help a person who is HIV positive conceive a child without spreading the virus to the fetus.
Before putting the toxin in a gel, it is first encased in extremely tiny spheres or nanoparticles, that were originally designed to deliver drugs. Because these nanoparticles have been around for a while, scientists know that they circulate safely in the body. But the researchers, lead by Joshua L. Hood, a research instructor in medicine at the university, had to tweak the design of the nanoparticles so that they wouldn’t allow the toxin to come into contact with other cells in the body. To that end, they added molecular “bumpers” to the surface of the nanoparticles. The bumpers are just the right size so that small AIDS viruses can get through but large cells cannot.
The melittin kills the virus by breaking down the protective, which it needs in order to live and replicate. Other HIV medications focus on preventing the virus from reproducing. But focusing on reproduction doesn’t prevent the infection in the first place because the virus is still alive. Killing it outright prevents that infection.
One added benefit of the nanoparticles’ “bumpers” is that since they prevent the mellitin from reaching normal cells, they won’t harm sperm cells. That means a vaginal gel could be used by couples that want to have children and reduce their HIV risk at the same time. A gel could also help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases too. In other forms it might work against hepatitis, for instance.
The study was published in the journal Antiviral Therapy.
Credit: Centers For Disease Control