Hypericin, a compound whose antiviral properties were first documented at the Institute, is now being tested on AIDS-afflicted patients at three American research hospitals.
In the early 1980's Prof. David Lavie of the Department of Organic Chemistry began to investigate whether Hypericum triquetrifolium, a plant that grows wild in Israel, possesses the same medicinal qualities as Hypericum perforatum, a plant popularly known as St. John's wort, which has long been used as an antidepressant. Lavie isolated one of the plant's active ingredients, hypericin, and found that it has antiviral activity.
Prof. Lavie's son, Dr. Gad Lavie, then working at New York University Medical Center, discovered that hypericin suppresses the action of two animal retroviruses. Test-tube experiments carried out in a joint Weizmann Institute -- New York University Medical Center study subsequently showed that hypericin is active against yet another retrovirus, the human AIDS virus HIV. A Weizmann Institute team headed by the senior Lavie and Prof. Yehuda Mazur, also of the Department of Organic Chemistry, proceeded to synthesize the active substance hypericin and to elucidate its chemical properties.
Laboratory tests of this material by the New York Blood Center recently achieved complete inactivation of over 100,000 HIV particles per milliliter of human blood -- a concentration around 100 times greater than that typically found in infected blood plasma. Investigations at this center have also begun on the use of hypericin to neutralize a wide range of other viruses and retroviruses present in stored human transfusion blood, and into ways of removing the hypericin once the blood has been made safe.
Clinical trials sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently examined the inherent safety of hypericin when given intravenously to HIV-infected patients. A 24-patient NIH-sponsored PhaseI/II trial of an oral form of the drug is now getting under way at NYU Medical Center/Bellevue Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
Hypericin for these studies is manufactured by VIMRx Pharmaceuticals of Stamford, Connecticut, under a license granted by Yeda Research & Development Co., which is responsible for the commercial applications of Weizmann research.
Prof. Mazur holds the Rebecca and Israel Sieff Chair of Organic Chemistry, and Prof. Lavie, the Israel Matz Chair of Organic Chemistry.