Scientists have recently found that a key ingredient in bee venom destroys HIV without harming other cells. The researchers loaded the toxin, called mellitin, onto nanoparticles fashioned with “bumpers” that normal, larger cells bounced off of unharmed. HIV is small enough that it fits between the bumpers and makes contact with the surface of the nanoparticles, where the bee toxin awaits. Melittin on the nanoparticle fuses with the viral envelope and ruptures it, stripping the virus’s shell.
The difference between this technique and existing anti-HIV drugs is that most drugs attempt to inhibit the virus’s ability to replicate, which the virus is able to evolve to evade. These drugs also don’t arrest the initial infection. But melittin attacks the virus’s inherent structure. There’s theoretically no way to develop adaptive evasion responses to that.
The antiviral therapy has implications for areas rampant with HIV, to be used by women in a vaginal preventative gel that prevents the initial infection. Treatments could also be developed for drug-resistant HIV infections, to be delivered intravenously and potentially clear the blood of the infection. There is also the possibility for this treatment being useful for couples in which one member is HIV-positive but who want to have a baby together.
The nanoparticle itself was developed years ago for an artificial blood experiment, but it was lousy at carrying oxygen. It’s proving its worth now as a promising drug-delivery system instead: the particle can be loaded to target all kinds of infections.
Mellitin attacks double-layered membranes, like the kind many viruses use, indiscriminately, which also means that other viruses like Hepatitis B and C, which rely on a protective envelope to evade the body’s immune system, could be slayed by this potent little toxin. Researchers say the nanoparticles are easy enough to make that they can be reproduced for clinical trials soon.