Studying anti-viral properties of pokeweed protein

York biology Professor Katalin Hudak, right is working on a way to improve the lives of patients coping with the human immunodeficient virus (HIV). Her research taps into the powerful anti-viral effects of the simple pokeweed plant which has the potential to ease symptoms caused by the virus.

“It was known for years in scientific circles that pokeweed can synthesize a protein that is effective against several plant and animal viruses, but this information languished in obscurity until the late 1980s,” says Hudak. “Recently, however, it has been discovered that the Pokeweed Anti-Viral Protein, or PAP, does not destroy a cell’s ability to create the proteins necessary for life, unlike such highly poisonous relatives of PAP like Ricin.”

Hudak has two patents pending for her research into the design of non-toxic versions of PAP and how they interact with cellular proteins. “Now what we need to do is to modify the wild protein and engineer a superior form of it,” she says. “Once we have a good version, a pharmaceutical company could be approached to commence clinical trials.”

Presently in use in South Africa is its raw, or “wild” form, PAP has proven a much cheaper alternative to the protease “cocktails” in the treatment of HIV, and its side effects much less debilitating for patients.

Left: Pokeweed

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is native to the United States and southern Canada, and grows widely in pasture lands, fencerows and waste areas. The mature plant is considered poisonous to humans, although freshly cut young leaves and shoots may be cooked and eaten like spinach. In 1969, a popular song on the radio was “Poke Salad Annie.” The song depicted a poor southern girl who picked a wild plant called pokeweed for a vegetable. The greens are also called poke salet, and they are sometimes canned and sold in markets.