A plant used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine — one that's available in tablet form on Amazon for 22 cents a pill — could someday be used to help fight HIV in patients with the virus. That's what researchers at Florida International University say they've discovered in laboratory tests.
Earlier this year, the FIU researchers were granted a patent for the project they've been working on for the past five years, showing for the first time that the extract from a plant called Rubia cordifolia can be used alongside traditional antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV.
The team is next looking to begin testing the product on humans in clinical trials, says Dr. Madhavan Nair, founding chair of the department of immunology at FIU's College of Medicine.
Rubia cordifolia is a plant in the coffee family that's been used in Africa and Asia as a dye, thanks to the red pigment that comes from its stems and roots. It's also been used as a natural remedy because of its immune-boosting properties. Nair says the team began researching its effects on HIV in 2011.
"This plant extract has been used for other purposes, for example, to stimulate immune response," he tells New Times. "So if the plant has known immune stimulation effects, we thought this could help HIV patients."
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Based on laboratory tests, the researchers believe the formula could boost patients' immunity, reduce their HIV viral loads, and increase their CD4 counts, an important indicator of an HIV patient's overall health.
Nair says the tests showed simply that the plant extract can be used in conjunction with current HIV medications to increase their effectiveness, not that it could or should be used on its own. But because the plant formula has no known side effects, he believes it could help patients who experience negative reactions from their current cocktail of prescriptions.
"If they use the plant product, they could reduce their dosage [of traditional medications] and still have the same effect or added effects against the virus," he says.
The team at FIU is trying to win a grant from the National Institutes of Health. NIH funding would allow the researchers to identify the chemical makeup of the plant so it could be synthesized and created inside a lab instead of having to be harvested, Nair says. The money would also help FIU host clinical trials instead of using a third-party pharmaceutical company.