More than a of a quarter century since the world began to buzz about eradicating AIDS with the bark of a tree, a cure could be closer than we think.
Chemist Paul Wender of Stanford University has earned global acclaim working toward that goal, along with AIDS researchers Paul Cox and Dr. Stephen Brown. Wender, who spoke today before the 246th gathering of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis, told Healthline that he believes AIDS medicine for humans, made from the bark of the Samoan mamala tree, could be in human clincal trials in 18 to 24 months.
“AIDS has changed from a death sentence to now you can live with AIDS, but do I think we're in a position right now where we can ask the next question, 'Can we actually eradicate the disease? Can you lower the load efficiently, minimize exposure, and limit transmission?' Absolutely,” Wender said.
Wender said that although initial tests are being done on animals, blood from AIDS patients who have been on immunosuppressive therapy is also being used. “This is hugely exciting. We're dealing with real cells from real people who have a real problem. It's a green light.”
The National Institutes of Health is helping to fund his ongoing research.
Medication, Created by Nature
Wender has taken two incredibly powerful compounds from nature—prostratin and bryostatin—and has reproduced them in his laboratory for targeted medical uses.
“What we try to do is design molecules that will do things in a way that has never been done before,” Wender said. “We take things from nature, but nature evolves to do things other than what we use molecules for. But it provides us from time to time with clues, and we take those clues and design things to function therapeutically.”
Prostratin, which comes from the bark of the mamala tree, flushes the HIV virus out of cells where it hides. Previous drugs for HIV and AIDS have killed the virus when it is out in the open, but not when it remains hidden in cell reservoirs. If patients stop taking their medications, the virus quickly comes out of hiding and begins to reproduce.
Cox, an ethnobotanist and director of the Institute of Ethnomedicine in Wyoming, learned of the tree bark's properties from a Samoan healer in the 1987. Cox shared the information with the National Cancer Institute, and eventually the key ingredient made its way to Wender's lab.
Wender recreated prostratin and designed new analogs, or variants of the compound. Now, prostratin is 100 times more powerful than when it was naturally contained in the mamala tree.
“It's fantastic what professor Wender has done, and if it's going to allow this drug to be successful in flushing out cells, that's what everybody wants,” Cox told Healthline. “That's fantastic, and my only request is if this happens that people do not forget this came with love from the people of Samoa."
Just a Matter of Time
Prostratin is being developed by the AIDS Research Alliance (ARA), a non-profit organization in Los Angeles, Calif. dedicated to finding a cure for AIDS. The ARA has pledged to ensure access to the drug for people with AIDS in developing countries after it obtains approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human use.
Brown, who is the medical director of the ARA, told Healthline the alliance is about two-thirds of the way through experiments required to bring prostratin to market, adding that it has become an expensive undertaking. He said the organization has a new scientist on board and is doing much of the work in-house.
“It's a slow slog because we're a nonprofit,” Brown said. “I think there's more interest [now] on the part of pharmaceutical companies. When we first started, everyone thought we were crazy.”
The researchers have pinned their hopes for prostratin, and the end of AIDS, on Wender and his team. "Paul Wender is the greatest chance this drug ever has," Cox said. "Let's blow this sucker right off planet earth."
Curing Alzheimer's Too?
Wender's work goes beyond a potential cure for AIDS. By mining nature's treasure trove, he is finding therapies for cancer and Alzheimer's Disease as well.
Bryostatin comes from a small sea creature called a bryozoa, which looks something like a human finger. Its healing qualities were first discovered by Robert Pettit, a chemistry professor at the University of Arizona.
Wender has found that animals treated with bryostatin learn things more quickly and remember them for longer periods of time. He hopes that this will lead to medications for Alzheimer's Disease.
Moreover, Wender has created bryostatin analogs 1,000 times more potent at smoking HIV out of its cellular hiding places than even prostratin. However, he cautions that much more work needs to be done on bryostatin before it too becomes a viable drug candidate.
Updated, September 24, 2013: A previous version of this story misquoted Dr. Wender, saying he believed that AIDS medicine for humans, made from the bark of the Samoan mamala tree, could be available in 18 to 24 months. In fact, Wender believes that this is when the drug will be in clinical trials.