Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis (WU) say they’ve found a way to effectively destroy the HIV virus using a toxin found in bee venom.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Antiviral Therapy, states that the technique not only destroys the virus that causes AIDS, but also leaves surrounding cells intact.
Researchers say they hope the nanoparticle technology could be incorporated into a vaginal gel to prevent the spread of HIV in areas with high rates of infection.
How Nanoparticles & Bee Venom Destroy HIV
Microscopic nanoparticles have unique and exciting properties. In biomedicine, they are used to transport important proteins throughout the body. Bee venom’s principle toxin is melittin, a small protein. Researchers used nanoparticles to distribute melittin in laboratory studies.
Similar to the way a bee injects its venom into your skin using its stinger, the toxin melittin is able to poke holes in the protective coating of HIV and other viruses.
“We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” Dr. Joshua L. Hood, a research instructor in medicine at WU, 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.”
When researchers loaded the toxin into nanoparticles, they found that it didn’t harm normal cells because of a protective bumper added to the nanoparticle’s surface. Because HIV cells are smaller than regular cells, they slide between the bumpers while leaving healthy, normal cells intact.
Most current HIV treatments focus on inhibiting HIV’s ability to replicate, but do nothing to stop the initial infection. However, researchers say that because the venom-laced nanoparticles attack a crucial part of HIV’s structure, they can kill before the virus has a chance to infect a person.
How Bee Venom Nanoparticles Can Help Stop the Spread of HIV
Researchers say these bee venom nanoparticles could be used in a vaginal gel to help prevent the spread of HIV in developing countries, such as parts of Africa with a high HIV rate. They could also be used by people who want HIV protection, but not contraception.
“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.”
Beyond preventive measures, Hood sees the potential for treating existing HIV infections. He theorizes that the nanoparticles could be injected into a person’s blood in order to clear HIV cells from the bloodstream.
The technology could also be used to combat other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B and C, because the viruses share a similar protective membrane to the HIV virus.
Dr. George Krucik, Healthline’s director of clinical content, said that while nanoparticle research is not new, much more research will be required before these results can be put to use in people.
“This delivery technology holds out the promise of destroying circulating viruses that have not entered a cell, so in theory they could prevent a virus from infecting a cell,” he said. “These laboratory experiments are known as proof of concept studies, which demonstrate the feasibility of the technology. The use of this technology in humans has yet to be explored and will require years of study and clinical trials to see if they are effective in real live people.”
Bee venom is also being studied for use in pain relief medications and anti-aging creams.