DRUG DEVELOPED FROM SAMOAN TREE BARK COULD ERADICATE HIV VIRUS

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By Samoa News Staff

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (November 16, 2001 – Samoa News)---An experimental compound found in the bark of a Samoan tree may help doctors eradicate HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, out of hiding places that are out of reach of current drugs, Reuters Health reported last week.

Even though combination drug therapy can reduce HIV to undetectable levels in the blood of most patients, a small amount of the virus lies dormant in cellular reservoirs in the body, according to Dr. Roger J. Pomerantz of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It has been impossible to eradicate HIV "because it goes into hiding," Pomerantz is quoted by Reuters Health as saying. Only a small amount of HIV lingers, he said, but it is enough to "reignite the brushfires of HIV" if treatment is stopped.

But in laboratory experiments, Pomerantz and his colleagues were able to lure HIV out of its hiding places with a substance called prostratin.

"This is the first step in the development of a new compound that activates HIV out of latency, out of its hiding places,'' Pomerantz said.

(Jefferson Medical College spokesman Steve Benowitz said Dr. Pomerantz was not available to speak to Samoa News but the doctor did confirm the accuracy of the Reuters Health story.)

Samoa News questions regarding the origin of the tree or the name of the Samoan tree were referred to Dr. Michael R. Boyd at the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Drug Discovery Research and Development, Center for Cancer Research in Frederick, Maryland, who collaborated in the research.

Efforts to reach Dr. Boyd were unsuccessful.

However, some individuals, including a journalist in Samoa, believe the Samoan tree was discovered by an American botanist named Cox, on the big Island of Savai‘i.

Early this month, an Apia-based website news service said Samoa is expected to receive a royalty equivalent to 20 percent from the commercial production of a drug which is being planned as an important input into drugs required to help cure HIV/AIDS patients.

The website said the information was revealed by a Samoan lecturer, just in time for the country to recognize Environmental Week in Samoa.

This will relate to the extraction of the curing properties of the "mamala" plant either naturally or from synthetics," it said.

This is a landmark announcement for Samoa, as it represents the potential of using some of the indigenous medicine, which has now been discovered as not "voodoo" magic.

In the 1990s, the "mamala" was discovered and patented by Brigham Young University, Utah and the U.S. National Institute of Cancer after a batch of plants was sent to the USA from the village of Falealupo, Savai‘i.

Regarding Dr. Pomerantz, he explained to Reuters Health that prostratin, found in the bark of a Samoan tree, has been used traditionally in Samoa to treat a number of illnesses, including jaundice.

Pomerantz's collaborators at the National Cancer Institute isolated a pure form of prostratin from the bark.

Prostratin has a dual effect on HIV. On the one hand, it inhibits the replication of circulating copies of the virus. But on the other hand, it activates HIV that lies dormant.

In laboratory tests using cells taken from HIV-positive people on combination therapy, Pomerantz and his colleagues found that prostratin could lure dormant HIV from its cellular hiding places.

This suggests that a drug containing prostratin might be a "reasonable candidate" to use in conjunction with current HIV medications, Pomerantz and his colleagues note in their report on the findings in the November 15th issue of the journal Blood.

Prostratin is one of several compounds, including interleukin-2, that have the ability to reactivate latent HIV, according to Pomerantz. But the Philadelphia researcher noted that prostratin seems to be less toxic than the other potential therapies.

The next step, he said, is to test prostratin in monkeys to make sure that it is safe to use. If it is not toxic in monkeys, then prostratin should move on to safety trials in humans, he added.

Benowitz told the Samoa News that no dates are set for testing.

Ideally, prostratin therapy would take advantage of the compound's dual action on HIV, Pomerantz pointed out. He said it would be used in combination with current therapy "to both inhibit HIV and drive it out of hiding."

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