A common plant used as a Folk Remedy in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia may be a treatment for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) – the virus that causes AIDS. It is “more powerful than AZT,” according to a new study by researchers from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group.

The plant Justicia, which grows abundantly along streams and in thickets throughout most of the Philippines and in other parts of South and Southeast Asia, contains a chemical compound called patentiflorin A, which works in the same way as AZT (azidothymidine), considered the standard effective antiviral treatment for HIV sufferers for 30 years.

Promising anti-HIV treatment

Patentiflorin A, the scientists concluded, showed anti-HIV properties “more powerful than the drug AZT,” when tested on human cells infected with the HIV virus.

The study team comprised medical researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Hong Kong Baptist University, and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.

The study, which has been published in the Journal of Natural Compounds, found that patentiflorin A has the ability to block an enzyme called reverse transcriptase that the HIV virus needs to be able to incorporate its genetic code into a cell’s DNA. By preventing the transfer of the genetic code of the virus, the compound stops the virus from reproducing.

Study leader Dr. Rong Lijun, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also said that patentiflorin A was effective against strains of the HIV virus that are resistant to AZT and other drugs, making the naturally-found chemical a “very promising candidate” for a new treatment against HIV.

Natural remedy

The potential new weapon in the fight against HIV and AIDS is welcome news in the Philippines, one of only seven countries in the world where the rate of new cases of HIV infection and AIDS has been increasing since 2001, according to data from the Philippines’ Department of Health and the World Health Organization.

Justicia is known by the local names Tuhod-manok or Bunlaw in the Philippines, and folk doctors and herbalists have long been familiar with its medicinal properties, using the leaves and roots of the plant to treat a variety of ailments. A tea made from the leaves is used as a treatment for coughs and asthma, while the fresh juice from the leaves can be mixed with coconut oil as a natural salve to soothe arthritis and rheumatism. Extracts from the bitter-tasting roots are also used, mainly as a treatment for diarrhea or urinary problems. The dried or fresh leaves of the plant are also said to be effective in keeping insects out of clothing.

The Justicia plant is put to similar uses in other countries as well, primarily in Vietnam – where the research team collected the samples used in the study – Sri Lanka, India, and Malaysia.

The discovery of its anti-HIV properties greatly extends the potential value of this already useful plant, although the research team was also able to synthesize the patentiflorin A compound in the lab.

Study leader Rong suggested the success in artificially producing the chemical would help to speed follow-up research and eventual development of a useful drug, pointing out that the economic and environmental impacts of establishing farms to grow and harvest the plant could be avoided.