A cure for Aids could be less than two years away thanks to extensive analysis of a tree bark used in Samoa to make medicinal tea, a major US scientific conference has been told.
Dr Paul Wender of Stanford University has told the American Chemical Society an Aids medicine made from Samoa's mamala tree could be available in 18 to 24 months.
"Aids has changed from a death sentence to now you can live with Aids, but do I think we're in a position right now where we can ask the next question, 'Can we actually eradicate the disease? Can you lower the load efficiently, minimise exposure, and limit transmission?' Absolutely," Wender told Healthline.
Wender and several other scientists, including Aids researchers Paul Cox and Stephen Brown, first heard about mamala use as a remedy for viral hepatitis in Falealupo at the most western point of Samoa.
The US National Cancer Institute analysed the bark and identified prostratin as a key ingredient.
After 25 years of work, Wender has synthesised prostratin, enabling the latest breakthrough.
Wender told the ACS of new and efficient ways of making prostratin that appear very effective for treating Aids and have applications for Alzheimer's disease and cancer.
Until they could make prostratin, it had been difficult to work out its antiviral effects, he said.
Scientists had had to extract prostratin from mamala and only tiny and variable amounts were obtained.
"We now have made synthetic variants of prostratin, called analogues, that are 100 times more potent than the natural product," Wender told the conference.
"The mamala tree did not start making prostratin millions of years ago to treat a disease that appeared in the 20th century. The same is true for other substances that occur naturally in plants and animals."
But they now have the tools "to read nature's library" and learn.
The new versions of prostratin show promise in laboratory tests for both preventing HIV from infecting human cells and awakening dormant HIV viruses that are hiding inside human latently infected cells.
Wender told Healthline that initial testing had been done on animals, but tests were now being done on blood from Aids patients.
"This is hugely exciting. We're dealing with real cells from real people who have a real problem. It's a green light."
Cox, an ethnobotanist and director of the Institute of Ethnomedicine in Wyoming, said Wender's work was fantastic.
"My only request is if this happens that people do not forget this came with love from the people of Samoa."
Under a licensing deal with American researchers, Samoa would get 20% of profits from any drug resulting from the mamala tree.