Could an herbal therapy that’s been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to strengthen the immune system hold the key to an effective treatment for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, better known as AIDS? A new study by scientists at the UCLA AIDS Institute says that’s possible.
The research, set to be published in the Journal of Immunology November 15th (available on-line now at http://www.jimmunol.org/cgi/content…), concludes astragalus root contains a substance that could make it a powerful weapon in the fight against the HIV virus that causes AIDS. “This has the potential to be either added to or possibly even replace the HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy), which is not tolerated well by some patients and is also costly,” co-author Rita Effros, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and member of the UCLA AIDS Institute, said in a press statement.
So what specifically appears to make astragalus effective in treating HIV infection? The key finding in the UCLA study shows a substance in the herbal therapy prevents or slows down the progressive shortening of a part of immune system cells called telomeres.
A telomere is a region found at the end of each cell chromosome. It does not contain genes but does contain repeated DNA sequences. As immune cells age, telomeres gets shorter and shorter when the cells divide. Eventually, the cells change, can no longer divide and their ability to fight infections is compromised. This phenomenon is dubbed replicative senescence.
For a strong immune system to function correction, a great deal of cell division has to take place. For example, when a virus invades the body, killer T-cells (known as CD8 T-lymphocytes) have receptors that recognize the invader and begin to create versions of themselves to fight the virus — through division, they create more and more of an immune system “army” to knock out the virus. In most healthy people, the telomeres in cells are long enough to allow cells to divide many times without a glitch. What’s more, T-cells can switch on an enzyme called telomerase to prevent the telomeres from shortening and to boost the ability of the cells to divide.
“The problem is that when we’re dealing with a virus that can’t be totally eliminated from the body, such as HIV, the T-cells fighting that virus can’t keep their telomerase turned on forever. They turn off, and telomeres get shorter and they enter this stage of replicative senescence,” Dr. Effros explained in a statement to the press.
Previous studies have shown that injecting the telomerase gene into T-cells can keep the telomeres from shortening so they fight HIV longer than they normally would be able to. However, this complicated and expensive gene therapy isn’t a practical way to treat the millions of people infected with the HIV virus. Good news: the current study shows that treatment with a natural substance called TAT2 found in astragalus could be a far better approach.
The reason? Not only did the researchers find that the astragalus-derived TAT2 slowed the shortening of telomeres, but it also boosted the CD8 T-lymphocytes production of soluble factors called chemokines and cytokines. And these substances have been shown in other research to shown to block the replication of the HIV virus.
“The ability to enhance telomerase activity and antiviral functions of CD8 T-lymphocytes suggests that this strategy (using TAT2 from astragalus) could be useful in treating HIV disease, as well as immunodeficiency and increased susceptibility to other viral infections associated with chronic diseases or aging,” the researchers wrote in their research paper.
According to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center web site (http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/691…), astragalus has no reported adverse effects. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to support and enhance the immune system and for heart disease. Currently, the herb is widely used in China for chronic hepatitis, colds and upper respiratory infections and as an adjunctive therapy in cancer. The remarkable herbal therapy has also shown promise in animal experiments as a way to prevent dementia.
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