The World Health Organization estimated that by the end of 2012, 35.3 million people had human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which included approximately 2.3 million new cases. Untreated HIV progresses to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), its disease-form, when the virus reduces your immune system T-cells below the 200-cells-per-cubic-millimeter threshold.
While antiviral treatments have advanced in the past decade, over a million people die from AIDS-related conditions every year. Ongoing research continues to battle the spread of HIV. Two recent efforts found new hope in unlikely sources.
Soy Sauce Molecule Stops HIV Virus Production
Scientists at Yamasa, a Japanese soy sauce company, were improving this condiment’s taste in 2001 when they discovered that EFdA (4′-ethynyl-2-fluoro-2′-deoxyadenosine) is much more than a flavor-enhancing molecule. They recognized its similarity to the prevailing drugs that treat HIV and other viruses. Further testing confirmed that EFdA helps stop HIV virus reproduction.
Extensive research followed for over a decade to determine why this molecule is so special. EFdA becomes part of nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs), which HIV drugs contain. NRTIs arrest the HIV spreading process by deceiving the reverse transcriptase enzyme.
Stefan Sarafianos and other virologists at the Bond Life Sciences Center were testing the next generation of anti-AIDS treatment. A study showed that EFdA is 70 times more powerful against HIV that’s resistant to Tenovir, a common HIV drug. Sarafianos teamed up with Michael Parniak, a biochemist at the University of Pittsburg, and Hiroaki Mitsuya of the National Institutes of Health. Parniak spent years evaluating HIV treatments by using cultured white blood cells while Mitsuya was part of the group that discovered the first three anti-HIV drugs.
These researchers continue discovering EFdA’s magic. A 2012 test showed that it cured the equivalent of HIV in monkeys. Now focused on human HIV transmission prevention, they recruited Lisa Rohan, a formulation expert at the University of Pittsburgh. After creating an EFdA vaginal film that’s similar to the consistency of breath strips, they’ll test how long the drug remains in the cells and bloodstream.
When they understand why EFdA is so potent structurally, they hope to develop additional powerful molecules. Parniak concluded, “a combination of those molecules could be a blockbuster.”
Coral Protein Blocks HIV Infection
Soft coral samples the Australian Institute of Marine Science collected from reefs off the coast of northern Australia contained amazing medicinal properties. Researchers discovered that cnidarin, a protein unique to a feathery coral polyp species, blocks an HIV virus from entering T-cells. Halting this critical step in viral reproduction prevents the disease from progressing. The scientists who uncovered this new HIV-fighting protein are hopeful that that the coral extracts can boost the efficacy of future preventative treatments.
“We found that cnidarins bind to the virus and prevent it from fusing with the T-cell membrane,” said Koreen Ramessar, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Cancer Institute. “This is completely different from what we’ve seen with other proteins, so we think the cnidarin proteins have a unique mechanism of action.”
While this is the first time coral has yielded medically useful compounds, drugs for a variety of conditions owe their healing abilities to other marine organisms. For instance, some algae species contain proteins that also inhibit viral attachment to host cells.
“Every protein is different, so the cnidarins will have to undergo rigorous immunological profiling prior to any clinical use,” said lead researcher Barry O’Keefe, deputy chief of the Molecular Targets Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research.
The next step is to generate enough cnidarin from coral extracts for further testing and eventual use in future preventative treatments. Then researchers will proceed with preclinical testing. Because the pharmaceutical development phase is a lengthy process, a coral-based drug won’t be available commercially for quite some time.
Retrieving an adequate coral supply is a concern. Various studies estimate 10 percent of the world’s reefs are completely dead, and 60 percent are at risk, due to damaging human activities such as coral mining and introduced disease. Most corals also are sensitive to pollution including runoff from coastline urban areas. By 2030, projections show that over 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs may be dead.
Australia is planning to extend a protected area along its northeast coast where the cnidarin-producing species exists. This would safeguard 400,000 square miles against drilling and other damaging activities. It would be the largest highly protected marine area in the world.
While practical use of cnidarin may be a long way off, the preliminary results from this study are very promising. They also highlight the importance of preserving natural environments — not just for the sake their resident species, but also for our own.
Current HIV Medications
Until these new treatments become available, current HIV medications include Trizivir, a reverse transcriptase inhibitor that combines Abacavir, Lamivudine and Zidovudine. These antiviral medications prevent HIV cells from multiplying in your body so you won’t develop AIDS.
Avoid Practices that Can Spread HIV
Other people can contract HIV from you through contact with your blood and other bodily fluids. Don’t share needles or other injection equipment. No one else should use any of your personal items like toothbrushes and razor blades. Always practice safe sex by using latex or polyurethane condoms. Follow your medication regimen and these precautions to enjoy a rewarding life with your loves ones, despite having HIV.