SA looks to gold for treating Aids pandemic

Scientists in South Africa are exploring whether one of the country’s most precious commodities, gold, could hold the key in the battle against diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria and cancer.

As the country struggles to bring down the world’s highest Aids tally after India and treat thousands of malaria and cancer cases, scientists are looking at developing gold-based drugs to include in the ever-growing array of medicines to combat the illnesses.

“This year is probably our most exciting, because in the beginning of the year we identified a series of gold-based drugs that are very active in the fight against cancer,” said Judy Caddy, who heads medical research at the national mineral researcher Mintek’s Project AuTEK.

A joint venture between Mintek and the country’s largest mining houses, AngloGold Ashanti, Goldfields and Harmony, Project AuTEK looks at the research and development of novel industrial applications for gold.

“Various researchers said: ‘We have got all these cancer drugs and we really need a cure for HIV, what about testing these compounds in relation to HIV?’,” said Caddy in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

The drugs tried out on cancer also showed promising results in treating malaria and HIV, she said.

“What they found was that these drugs indeed have therapeutic value for HIV.”

A key HIV researcher at the AuTEK team, Raymond Hewer, told the Johannesburg-based The Star newspaper that gold-based drugs had demonstrated the ability to inhibit HIV replication in laboratory experiments.

Once fully developed, the drugs could be considered as a potential choice of therapy for individuals infected with HIV, he said.

Scientists still needed to test their findings on live specimens—which could take time and yield unexpected results.

Caddy stressed that HIV gold-based drug research, which involved taking an HIV infected cell and subject it to treatment to a drug to see if it inhibited HIV, only started in the middle of last year.

“We still have a way to go,” she added, saying it can take as long as 20 years for drugs to move from initial tests to the market.

Of research into the three diseases, cancer treatment was the most developed and scientists have already identified a series of gold-based drugs that were active—which means that the disease was being inhibited—and selective, meaning that just the disease and not healthy cells was being targeted.

Research into drugs preventing malaria, a disease which affected more than 5 300 South Africans last year, was progressing quickly, Caddy said.

And although researchers are getting results from their tests, they do not quite know how gold-based drugs work.

“The mechanism of action is something that’s still a long way from known. There is still debate on exactly how it works,” she said, adding her team’s research would prioritise finding out exactly how the drugs worked.

Even so, the medicinal effects of gold have been known for thousands of years in places like ancient Egypt and China, where it was used to treat ailments such as smallpox, skin ulcers and measles. In the Middle Ages, gold was often a key ingredient in “magic potions”.

“From its early historical use in ancient cultures, gold is becoming increasingly important in many modern medical treatments, ranging from drugs to precision implants,” the London-based World Gold Council said on its website.

Added Caddy: “The difference between platinum-based drugs or other precious metal drugs is that it is seen as the carrier of a therapeutic entity to a target.”

“Gold metal itself is therapeutic—and that’s what is important.”

That may be exactly what South Africa’s 5,5-million people with HIV/Aids would like to hear.
- Sapa-AFP

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