U researchers enlist bees in search for an HIV treatment

by Emily Ayshford

Preliminary results of HIV research have created a buzz in the University community.

A new cross-disciplinary research effort is studying the inhibiting effects of propolis, a resin that bees collect from trees, on the HIV virus.

Gary Gardner, director for the University’s Center for Plants and Human Health, brought together Phil Peterson, director of the Medical School’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine, with entomology professor Marla Spivak and several horticulturists to work on the research.

They discussed their findings in a presentation at Borlaug Hall on Friday.

The group received a pilot grant from the University in 2003 to begin research on propolis.

For millennia, people around the world have used propolis, which bees pack on their hind legs and use to sterilize and seal up cracks in hives, for its healing properties against infections and diseases, Peterson said.

“The bee hive is one of the most sterile places on Earth,” Peterson said.

Last summer, Spivak set up sets of bee colonies in the Minnesota cities of St. Paul, Duluth and in southeastern Minnesota in order to obtain propolis samples from different regions.

Researchers used the propolis from these colonies, along with samples from Brazil and China, to study the resin’s chemical compounds and effectiveness against HIV.

But because propolis comes from the existing trees and plants in the area, it could have hundreds of chemical compounds that differ in each region around the world.

Gardner said part of the grant money will help researchers identify the chemical fraction of propolis that makes it effective against HIV. He said they hope to get the first data within the next couple weeks.

On the medical side, Peterson has tested the propolis in HIV-infected brain cells and white blood cells called CD4 lymphocyte cells.

Preliminary results show that propolis inhibited viral activity in the samples and did not inhibit the effectiveness of two classes of HIV drugs, as other botanical supplements can do.

Gardner said they hope a few more rounds of testing will provide them with the preliminary data needed to get federal funding.

“The exciting part is that we’ve got the different skills to really look at this from all perspectives,” he said. “By bringing these disciplines together, we really have a chance to make a difference in a very important disease.”