Thirty years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked approval of azidothymidine, the first medication on the market used to fight AIDS. It was a groundbreaking move that would entirely change the course of HIV/AIDS treatment. Thanks to the drug, also known as Retrovir, AZT or zidovudine, people living with HIV were able to live longer, fuller lives.
AZT is usually coformulated in combination with other anti-HIV drugs as part of antiretroviral therapy (ART), though not commonly prescribed today with the advent of newer drugs. AZT can suppress the virus to the point where it's undetectable, though it can cause side effects. But scientists may have found a plant chemical that's even more powerful than AZT in fighting HIV infection, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Natural Compounds.
Scientists from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Hong Kong Baptist University and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology discovered that patentiflorin A, a compound derived from the Southeast Asian plant justicia gendarussa, has a greater effect than AZT in blocking the enzyme -- known as reverse transcriptase -- needed for the HIV virus to reproduce in the body.
"This compound is more potent in inhibiting HIV replication," said Lijun Rong, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology in the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Medicine and lead researcher on the study. "It is quite remarkable."
The scientists, who worked together as part of a multi-year partnership, screened more than 4,500 plant extracts in an effort to analyze their ability to fight HIV infection, as well as other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and cancer. According to the study, the research team focused on patentiflorin A, which was derived from the leaves, stems and roots of the justicia plant, because of its high anti-HIV potency.
They studied the effect of patentiflorin A on human cells infected with HIV and found that the compound was significantly more effective than AZT in inhibiting the reverse transcriptase enzyme, which inserts HIV's genetic material into a cell's DNA.
The discovery that patentiflorin A can inhibit the disease's key enzyme could have major implications for the future of HIV treatment, Rong told TheBody.com. According to the paper, the plant compound had been shown to fight against known drug-resistant strains of HIV. "Since the compound is so potent and effective against drug-resistant HIV isolates, it has good potential to be developed as a new drug," said Rong, who has a background in identifying antiviral agents.
Scientists were also able to synthesize patentiflorin A, which could provide a faster and more cost-effective way to produce the compound for medicinal use.
The research also opens up doors for future study of other, related compounds identified from the justicia gendarussa plant, Rong told TheBody.com. But he noted that patentiflorin A is not a "natural remedy or natural cure," although the compounds were found in a plant.
"We made it chemically already," Rong said. "We do not know if the plant can be used directly as a food supplement. More research is needed."
Rong told TheBody.com that he and his colleagues were drawn to this particular research "to discover new anti-HIV drugs and make them more accessible and cheaper" for low-income countries where HIV treatment is expensive and scarce. The scientists worked together as an International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, a program of the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center supporting the exploration of natural compounds and extracts that can be used for health and medicinal purposes.
Rong admitted the study faces some limitations. "The effects we have observed so far are cell-based," he told TheBody.com. "The findings need to be validated in animal models."
The project was funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The researchers were also supported by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region-China, the Health and Medical Research Fund of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's Food and Health Bureau, the Hong Kong Baptist University Interdisciplinary Research Matching Scheme, the Hong Kong Baptist University, and a grant from the Mr. Kwok Yat Wai and Madam Kwok Chung Bo Fun Graduate School Development Fund.
Although more research is needed to understand patentiflorin A's benefits, the findings do suggest immediate and long-term significance for people living with HIV.
"It gives hope that one day a natural product-based remedy is a possibility," Rong told TheBody.com.