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Curcumin Stops Rift Valley Fever Virus

Rift Valley Fever virus

The popular spice curcumin has been shown to stop the Rift Valley fever virus dead in its tracks, which may not seem highly relevant to people who don't live in various regions of Africa where the disease mostly occurs. Yet this discovery could have important implications for other viruses, including HIV.

What is Rift Valley fever?

Rift Valley fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease that occurs mainly in eastern and southern Africa, but it also has been reported in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The fever primarily affects domestic livestock, such as cattle, goats, sheep, and camels, and can strike a devastating blow to farmers who rely on these animals for their livelihoods, as the disease has a high mortality rate.

The viral infection also can be transmitted to humans via various avenues. Most people are infected through direct or indirect contact with fluids or organs of infected animals. However, the virus can also be transmitted to people from the bites of infected mosquitoes and blood-feeding flies.

The vast majority of cases of Rift Valley fever in people are mild. However, up to 2 percent of infected individuals develop severe symptoms, including potentially blinding eye disease, meningoencephalitis, or hemorrhagic fever.

In the new study from George Mason University, under lead investigator Aarthi Narayanan, research assistant professor in the university's National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, researchers found that curcumin, the main bioactive agent in the spice turmeric, stopped the virus from reproducing in infected cells.

According to Narayanan, curcumin often is "not taken seriously because it's a spice," but a growing number of studies of curcumin for various health challenges are proving otherwise. One reason for its appeal is that "Curcumin is, by its very nature, broad spectrum," noted Narayanan, which means it has the potential to fight a wide variety of viruses.

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For this study, the focus was on Rift Valley fever virus, and the scientific team found that curcumin may have an effect on how the virus impacts human cells to stop them from responding to the invader. In fact, the investigators found that curcumin inhibited replication of Rift Valley virus in human cells cultures and in a mouse model as well.

Although there is still much work to be done before curcumin and medications based on this turmeric component become commonplace, significant progress is being made. One important discovery was made several years ago by researchers at the University of Michigan (UM).

In 2009, scientists at UM uncovered the secret of how curcumin works in the body. Drawing on the power of NMR spectroscopy, they found that curcumin molecules infiltrate cell membranes and in the process makes those membranes more viable and stable, which in turn improves the ability of the cells to resist infection by invading organisms.

Discoveries such as this one with curcumin help support the work performed by Narayanan and others. Narayanan intends to apply the current and subsequent research regarding curcumin to other viruses in the Bunyaviridae family (of which Rift Valley fever is a member), alphaviruses such as various equine encephalitis viruses, and retroviruses, which includes HIV.

In addition to fighting viruses, scientists have been exploring other possible benefits of curcumin. Some of those possibilities include warding off prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, preventing fatty liver disease, and relieving inflammation.

Although Rift Valley fever may not be a topic of conversation around your water cooler, the findings of this latest study could have far-reaching advantages. Curcumin may someday be used to fight Rift Valley fever virus and similar viruses that affect people all around the world.

Barry et al. Determining the effects of lipophilic drugs on membrane structure by solid-state NMR spectroscopy: the case of the antioxidant curcumin. Journal of the American Chemical Society 2009; 131 (12): 4490
George Mason University
Narayanan A et al. Curcumin inhibits Rift Valley fever virus replication in human cells. Journal of Biological Chemistry 2012. doi:10.1074/jbc.M112.356535
World Health Organization

Image: Wikimedia Commons