By now, we’re all aware that bees have a huge impact on agriculture by pollinating plants, but it turns out they might also be able to help us deal with one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet: HIV. According to research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a toxin found in bee venom can be used to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
It works like this: nanoparticles loaded with melittin, the toxic agent in bee venom, come in contact with HIV or other viruses and, pokes holes in the protective envelope that surrounds those viruses. They don’t harm normal cells because those cells are too large to fit through the “bumpers” on the nanoparticles, but the HIV particles are small enough to get through.
What’s more, the same process might be useful against other diseases too. Nanoparticles like these have been shown to kill tumor cells, and might work against hepatitis B and C, viruses which have protective bubbles similar to HIV. And these aren’t the only diseases with this feature.
Unlike existing HIV drugs, which prevent the virus from reproducing, this actually kills the virus, allowing it to work as a preventative to HIV in the first place. But it can also function as a treatment for those who already have HIV, especially if the strain they are infected with is drug-resistant.
One advantage of using the nanoparticle method is that the virus can’t adapt to become resistant to it. “We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” said Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, one of the researchers. “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 protects the virus.”
This finding is an important step in the development of a vaginal gel that can be used to perhaps prevent the spread of HIV. “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 Dr. Hood.
That an element of bee venom is capable of doing this is amazing. But the simple fact is that nature is highly varied and capable of some pretty startling things. The more we learn about the world and the creatures we share it with, the more we’ll be able to do for ourselves and the world around us.
Washington University notes that no bees were harmed in this study because researchers used a synthetic version of the bee venom toxin.