Bee Venom Kills HIV: Nanoparticle Toxins Hold Amazing Power

By Sean Kane , Mar 08, 2013 11:13 AM EST

New research finds that a toxin found in bee venom is effective in killing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered that the toxin melittin, found in bee venom, damages the protective layer that coats HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The new development could be instrumental in creating a vaginal gel that kills the virus.

“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,” Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, a research instructor in medicine at Washington University.

The venom is not only effective against HIV. Samuel A. Wickline, MD, the study’s senior author, found that nanoparticles carrying the melittin toxin are also capable of killing tumor cells.

The researchers designed the melittin carrying nanoparticles so that they would not harm normal, healthy cells, either. The team accomplished this by adding “bumpers” to the nanoparticle surface. Cells are much larger than the nanoparticle, so when they come into contact, the nanoparticles merely bounce off the cells. However, HIV is much smaller than both. This means that when the virus comes into contact with the nanoparticle, it fits between the bumpers, where it meets the bee toxin.

The toxin attacks the protective membrane that coats the virus. “Melittin on the nanoparticles fuses with the viral envelope,” Hood said. “The melittin forms little pore-like attack complexes and ruptures the envelope, stripping it off the virus.”

“We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” Hood said. “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.”

This method proved to be effective in killing the virus. Most anti-HIV treatments inhibit the virus’s ability to replicate, but this method does nothing to treat the initial infection. Melittin may be used for fighting other viruses as well. The toxin-loaded nanoparticles aren't harmful to sperm cells, either, meaning the treatment could be used for couples with one HIV partner trying to conceive.

“The basic particle that we are using in these experiments was developed many years ago as an artificial blood product,” Hood said. “It didn’t work very well for delivering oxygen, but it circulates safely in the body and gives us a nice platform that we can adapt to fight different kinds of infections.”

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