Neem may be effective against AIDS

INDIAN scientists are exploring the possibility that neem could provide a non-toxic AIDS therapy. In Ayurveda and Unani, neem is prescribed for diverse ailments ranging from skin diseases to diabetes. Scientists at the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi, postulate neem's efficacy is not so much because of its ability to destroy the infecting organisms as in stimulating the body's immune system. Similar immuno-modulatory mechanisms, they add, could induce the anti-fertility effect of neem.

Studies were undertaken at NII and the Harvard Medical School in Boston by Shakti Upadhyay and his colleagues to understand the immuno-modulatory effects of neem leaf, bark and seed extracts on mice and on HIV-infected cell cultures. They found disease-fighting white blood cells increased considerably in mice three days after they were treated with neem extracts and these cells were better able to deal with infection. When exposed to tetanus toxoid antigens, the spleen's lymphocytes (infection-fighting cells) also proliferated.

HIV infection essentially results in a failure of the human immune system and the AIDS patient becomes more susceptible to disease. Upadhyay found when a culture medium of human blood cells infected with HIV is exposed to neem extracts, it contains fewer viral protein antigens. This, he adds, indicates neem in some way affects HIV. His team of scientists have also found neem bark extracts are more effective than leaf and seed extracts.

Upadhyay intends to continue his research at the Pasteur Institute in France, where HIV was first identified. Says Upadhyay, "We need to work out where exactly neem extracts act. The potential therapy may include other substances as well, because neem may be effective only at a particular stage of HIV infection."

But he cautions against over enthusiasm saying the immuno-stimulatory effect of neem could stimulate a latent HIV infection and lead to a full-blown case of AIDS.