Friday 6 December 2013

Flower Power - A Botanical HIV Defender

Back in August I wrote an article about the medicinal uses of plants I had included in my Flower Power series. Today is another one, and it also links in with one I wrote in May.

There have been many drugs and treatments for HIV that have been derived from plant products. One which has been heralded as a possible cure is the drug prostratin. It’s most important characteristic is that it can activate viruses that are hiding dormant and undetectable within human cells. That might not sound very healthy for the patient – activating viruses? But current HIV drug cocktails don’t affect dormant cells, so by activating them with prostratin the drugs can kill them. That means HIV has nowhere to hide.

Protratin’s story from discovery to possible HIV drug involves a missionary, a South Pacific war goddess, and exclusive national sovereignty over a gene.

In 1984 a botany professor from Brigham Young University called Paul Cox went to Samoa where he had previously been as a missionary during college. There he began to look into the relationship between plants and the indigenous culture, what is called ethnobotany. In particular Cox was interested in the use of plants in medicine.

In the Samoan rain forest Cox worked closely with the native healers in the village of Falealupo. One natural remedy for illness ranging from incontinence to hepatitis was an infusion made from the bark of the mamala plant (botanical name Homolanthus nutans). Realising it’s potential in producing antiviral drugs Cox sent samples to the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, USA.

In 1991 the Institute succeeded in isolating prostratin. Although prostratin was not unknown to chemistry its antiviral properties were discovered through research on Cox’s plant specimens.

Cox believed that the mamala plant could be vital in the fight against AIDS. But there was a cloud on the horizon in the shape of the Samoan government. Their educational policy insisted that Falealupo village must build its own school or face the expulsion of all its children from the state education system. The village couldn’t possibly raise the money needed so sold the logging right to their part of the rain forest. The loggers began to move in and put the very existence of the mamala palnt in jeopardy.

And this is where Nafanua, the Samoan war goddess makes an appearance. Paul Cox decided to but back the logging rights to protest the forest. To do this he sold his home in Utah and asked for donations. The Falealupo chiefs agreed to Cox’s plan and their school was built and the forest saved. One unexpected result for Cox was that the chiefs gave him the name of their war goddess in gratitude.

With the natural habitat of the mamala plant saved “Nafanua” Paul Cox could continue research on the plant. After lots of negotiation Cox managed to arrange for the Samoan government to receive 20% of the profits from any drug produced from mamala plants, money which would help to sustain plantations and benefit the Falealupo village.

The potential of finding an effective defence against HIV through prostratin caught the attention of the chemist who is working on the synthesis of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, also originally found in a plant. Professor Jay Keasling is developing methods of inserting the genes of plant-derived drugs into bacteria to produce mini-drug factories.

In 2004 Jay Keasling, Paul Cox and the Samoan government signed an agreement which recognised Samoa’s right to ownership of the prostratin gene sequence, since it was obtained from a Samoan plant. With the profits from any drug produced by the mamala plant, the 50% profits from any gene-derived prostratin drug will also go to Samoan and the villagers of Falealupo.

Those native doctors who first worked with Cox way back in the 1980s helped in the early research and, who knows, in years to come people will be able to claim that their HIV was cured with the help of jungle bark, and a Samoan war goddess.

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