Why are HIV Researchers So Excited About Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce: it’s flavorful and you probably have it lurking around in your kitchen cupboards somewhere, but could it also contain an ingredient that can help fight HIV? Some scientists believe so, and they’re quite excited about it.

When treating people living with HIV/AIDS, an antiviral drug that is commonly used is Tenofovir. The drug is not a cure, but it is combined with other drugs to slow the virus’ destruction of the body’s white blood cells. The problem with drugs like this is that over time people using the drug can become resistant. As a result, researchers are very keen to find ways to keep HIV drugs effective for longer, and find new alternatives to fight HIV.

Now researchers in Missouri are exploring how a molecule found in soy sauce could provide a drug that doesn’t provoke such resistance.

“EFdA, the molecule we are studying, is less likely to cause resistance in HIV patients because it is more readily activated and is less quickly broken down by the body as similar existing drugs,” Stefan Sarafianos, of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, is quoted as saying.

The molecule was in fact discovered in 2001 by a team of Japanese researchers working for a soy sauce business which was trying to enhance the flavor of its products. The food researchers noted that the molecule appeared to come from a family of what are known as “nucleoside analogues” and as such seemed similar to drugs that are already used to treat HIV and, in some cases, hepatitis.

The researchers sent away these findings, tested them and explored further. Their observations have now been confirmed and, in the past decade, have led to a new wave of research into molecules like EFdA.

So what exactly is so special about the molecule, and why can it be used without provoking drug resistance? Researchers have found that EFdA is a tricky little molecule that, along with its counterparts in the nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) family, can essentially infiltrate HIV as it copies itself and trick the enzyme the virus uses to make copies into using the molecule. This, to put it in quite simplified terms, stops normal HIV replication and therefore halts the spread of the virus. Sarafianos likens it to leading HIV down a replication dead-end.

In new research published back in April, Sarafianos, together with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the National Institutes of Health, took a very close look at the EFdA molecule’s structure. This has enabled the research team to pinpoint which of the subtle differences in structure works the best for preventing a resistance response, and points out how further research may one day create a viable drug.

Tests have already shown that, even in people who weren’t resistant to Tenofovir, the molecule is up to 10 times more effective at halting HIV’s replication in the body. The drug has also been shown to significantly reduce the spread of the HIV equivalent in monkey subjects, bringing their virus load down below detectable levels. The molecule therefore shows promise not just in treating people who already have HIV/AIDS, but also preventing the virus from spreading.

To be clear, this isn’t a cure. Yet, the researchers believe that formulations based on this molecule could be helpful, particularly in treating women in African nations who, as a result of strong religious objections to using condoms and other measures, are left incredibly vulnerable to HIV.

With a focus on prevention in mind, the researchers are now working to further understand the molecule. They believe that with a more complete understanding, there’s a chance they, working alongside drug companies, could team the molecule with other HIV fighting molecules to create an HIV drug that is far superior to most that are on the market today. Of course this remains a long way off, but the research, which is published in The International Journal of Pharmaceutics, is promising for future advances.

Makes you wonder what other potentially life saving things might be lurking in your pantry, doesn’t it?

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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Janice Thompson
Janice Thompsonabout a year ago

If it works, use it.

Claire van der Meer

Very interesting

Manuela C.
Manuela C.1 years ago


Charmaine C.
Charmaine C.1 years ago

Wonderful discovery. I wonder what this small molecule might mean for other long term medication users? I can't imagine how you can enhance the flavor of soy sauce....it's amazingly pungent as it is :)

Nils Anders Lunde


Catrin K.

Thanks for sharing.

Anna Undebeck
Anna Undebeck1 years ago


Janis K.
Janis K.1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Julie D.
Julie D.1 years ago

Great news!

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez1 years ago