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Editorial: HIV bee studies a major stepping stone for research

Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

Bees. Long considered a nuisance by the allergic and the sting-prone alike, have long been known to naturally produce medicinal compounds in their honey and venom, but only recently have scientists discovered the sheer magnitude of their stunning capabilities. Namely: the possibility to cure HIV indefinitely.

The story begins with an infant in Mississippi. During labor, the baby’s mother (the patient’s name and sex have been kept off the record) was unaware she had HIV until labor when a test revealed that she was positive. This was discouraging news as HIV-positive mothers are usually given antiretroviral drugs to minimize the amount of virus in their blood during pregnancy. This strategy stops 98 percent of mother-to-child HIV transmissions when taken. But this infant had no such luck. The mother, not knowing she was infected, passed the virus to her child. The infant began the first doses of anti-HIV medication at 30 hours old. Doctors opted for the most aggressive treatments since there were no pre-natal antiretroviral drugs that are the norm in first world HIV-positive pregnancies.

It seemed at first that the child was going to have a normal HIV-infected childhood so they began drug treatment. Doctors initially expected the child to take the drugs for life but within a month of treatment, the HIV virus level had fallen so low that routine lab tests failed to detect any amount in the child’s blood. Mother and child continued regular clinic visits for a year, but then started to miss appointments. The child had no medication for almost five months.

Dr. Hannah Gay, the child’s physician, said, “When they did return to care aged 23 months, I fully expected that the baby would have a high viral load.” Contrary to Dr. Gay’s expectations, all of the tests came back negative.

When the child was subjected to more sensitive tests, what scientists found were traces of the virus, but no cells that could reproduce and cause trouble. Naturally, this strange case brought a flurry of hope in what seemed like a continuing hopeless pandemic. Upon further inspection, scientists discovered that a single chemical, melittin, found in the venom of honey bees was responsible for contributing to the disarmament of the HIV virus in a single young HIV-positive patient.

While one cured patient is hardly a dent in the millions afflicted with the HIV and AIDS viruses, the mere fact that the child, who received no pre-natal care, no preparation for a life of hardship, and even skimped on regular treatments, has been effectively cured after years of scientists beating their heads against the wall, is a big step in a global pandemic. This is an enormous win for medical science and the path of higher education that got them there. The details of the science are well beyond this column to investigate, but we at the Daily Campus salute the scientists and their hard work it took to get to this point in the war against HIV/AIDS.  

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