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Gold shows promise for HIV medicine

Biotech is full of eureka moments. A scientist never knows when or where their next great idea will pop into their head. "Its very odd where ideas come from. Sometimes you're driving in your car or you're just talking to you friends and it usually comes when you're not dealing with what you do every day." NC State chemistry professor Christian Melander has spent the past ten years with his eye to the microscope, trying to find new ways to combat HIV. One day he decided to take a break and head over to the campus gym. On the way, a colleague asked him, "What would you do with a nanoparticle of gold?" Melander's mind raced to an HIV drug called TAK-779 that was first developed in the '90s. "The drug was originally supposed to bind to cells in your body and prevent HIV from infecting them." TAK-779 did that - really well. But it also had side effects. "It would cause irritation at site of injection and had poor absorption into the body." Researchers gave up on the drug in 2005 and it never went to market. But scientists did figure out that ammonium salt was the culprit. "When it was taken out all those effects went away, but then you lost activity, so it was kind of a Catch-22." Melander believes a solution struck him during that afternoon walk to the gym: Gold nanoparticles. These are particles of gold that are invisible to the naked eye. They measure just one billionth of a meter. For years, researchers have been using gold particles to combat cancer. Dr. Mauro Ferrari directs the Division of Nano Medicine at The University of Texas and is a leader in the field. "With the established fact that nanoparticles of gold, in the right dosages, are well tolerated by the body and they are actually safe and therapeutically useful, it makes sense to use them as the starting point or basic carrier for treatment of all sort of diseases." Like HIV. So Dr. Melander worked with a team of researchers at NC State, UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado to see if gold nanoparticles fix this failed HIV drug. First they put healthy human blood cells into a series of Petri dishes. Then they gave some of the dishes a modified version of the drug, now containing one nanoparticle of gold instead of ammonium salt. The other cells received a similar medication, just without the gold. "We had some very sound scientific reasoning that we thought this would work and we would get a better result." When they introduced the HIV virus, the only cells that could resist it were the ones that received the new version of the drug - containing the gold nanoparticle. Now you might be wondering how much all of this gold costs. According to Melander, each dose would contain about 50 cents worth of gold, theoretically pricing the drug only slightly higher than current HIV medications. "Right now there's a lot of excitement and possibility." There are also a lot of questions to be answered. HIV mutates easily, so the next step would be to study whether the virus could find a way around this new drug over time. Plus, years of clinical trials would be needed to make sure that long term exposure to gold is just as safe as short term exposure is believed to be. "The real question then becomes can you manufacture it, is it stable enough to transport. There are a lot of things that only time will tell."