The HIV-Bee

by Zoe Tapp

Apis mellifera, or the common honeybee, is an essential part of American cultivation. For centuries, farmers have purchased or raised honeybees to aid in the pollination of crops such as apples, oranges, almonds and broccoli. New research shows that bees have hidden talents that can benefit society in non-agricultural ways.

Most people connect bees with stings or allergic reactions, resulting in frantic Epi-pen episodes or emergency room visits, but it seems that bees are actually contributing to the medical world in an unexpected way.

With over 1.1 million infected in the United States, and 15.6 percent of those unaware of their illness, the answer to the HIV epidemic may have been buzzing around our heads all along.

Like the flu or the common cold, HIV is a viral infection. Unlike these seasonal illnesses, however, the human immune system can’t seem to get rid of HIV completely once a person has been infected. In other words, once infected, you will have it for the rest of your life, as it slowly weakens the immune system and progresses into AIDS—a severe immunodeficiency where the immune system is destroyed to the point that it can no longer protect that body against even minor infections.

Medicine has progressed a great deal since the outbreak in the 1980s where up to six new cases were reported every week and most diagnosed patients died within a few years of contracting the disease. Today, HIV patients take multiple daily medications to alleviate symptoms, prevent infection and slow disease progression. With proper treatment, HIV patients can live full, normal lives. However, the disease can still cause complications in their routine and daily lives.

A major problem is when a mixed-status couple—one partner is HIV-negative and the other is HIV-positive—wishes to have a child. Even if HIV-positive individuals take their medications religiously, many still worry about conceiving naturally because there is still a chance of transmitting the disease to their partner. Alternative options such as artificial insemination and surrogacy completely eliminate the chance of spreading the infection. However, they’re very expensive: artificial insemination can be upwards of $2,000 and surrogacy can range from $100,000 to $150,000. Along with being a hit to the wallet, these options are viewed as impersonal and couples miss certain aspects during the pregnancy that are important for bonding as a couple and as a new family.

This is where Dr. Joshua L. Hood of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri drew their inspiration for their research. Hood and his team have discovered a way to use a toxin in honeybee venom, melittin, to fight HIV. Hood hopes to develop a gel that can be used as a preventative measure for mixed-status couples that would allow them to conceive naturally without worrying about transmitting the disease to the unaffected partner. By incorporating the toxin into nanoparticles, they’ve discovered that they can destroy HIV, but leave normal cells unharmed. Nanoparticles are tiny transport units that were originally designed to be a type of artificial blood, but were repurposed because they insufficiently transported oxygen. These nanoparticles are easily manipulated and manufactured. Early research has shown they can be used increasingly as an effective drug delivery system in medicine and drug therapies.

In order to keep these venom-laced particles from harming healthy cells, Hood has incorporated molecular bumpers on the particles’ surface; cells stay away by simply bouncing off of the bumpers, but the tiny HIV particles sneak through the cracks and fuse with the surface of the nanoparticle. The melittin then begins its work on the HIV particles, destroying its viral envelope—the protective outer covering of the virus.

This discovery could also be the future of drug therapies to help those who are currently suffering from HIV. Existing HIV medications attack the process of viral reproduction. Nonetheless, viral reproduction can be mutated to surpass treatments and create a different strain and a stronger virus. Because this treatment attacks a basic part of the virus’s structure – all viruses have a viral envelope and need it to survive – Hood believes that “there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to [it].” This could mean that melittin treatment could be consistently effective, administered to all strains and could possibly lead to a cure.

Melittin treatment is a serious advancement for HIV treatment, but it is also making its way into cancer research. At Washington University, Dr. Samuel A. Wickline, one of the senior authors for the melittin HIV study, is using the same melittin soaked nanoparticles to attack cancer cells. In addition to being an effective way to kill cancer cells, using these particles prevents the damage to healthy cells and deteriorating side effects that current cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy can cause.

Honeybees have caused a serious buzz in the medical world. A painful experience to most, bee stings have introduced a new way of treating lifelong and terminal diseases and have showed promise for continuing research, keeping hives of doctors busy as can be. Although honeybee venom isn’t an absolute cure for HIV or cancer, it’s making important strides toward combating these diseases and hopefully will shine new light on research toward developing a cure.