How curiosity in nuclear waste could lead to a treatment for AIDS

September 11, 2002

Brussels, 10 Sep 2002

While it is still early days, an accidental discovery by a US scientist could lead to a treatment for AIDS. And the source can be found clogging nuclear waste filters.

The accidental discovery came about during an investigation into blocked nuclear waste filters at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, USA. May Nyman, a 35 year-old scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, found an unusual crystalline material lodged in the filters designed to take radioactive portions out of liquid nuclear waste. Not content to unblock the filters and return to the lab, she decided to attempt to synthesise this substance in controlled conditions. From this, Ms Nyman learned that the crystal causing the defect in the waste process is an element called niobium, part of a class of materials known to chemists as heteropolyanions, or HPA for short.

Unknown applications

At the time, Ms Nyman was working purely out of curiosity, but her paper about the discovery in the journal Science has attracted interest from the medical community who have been testing HPAs as a potential treatment against AIDS. They can attach themselves to a virus in the blood stream, effectively rendering it harmless to other cells.

But the problem has been finding a stable HPA in non-acid solutions such as the blood. Ms Nyman's niobium HPA appears to be more stable in basic liquids and if it turns out to be stable in neutral liquids like the blood it could be an effective AIDS treatment.

"If the thing has a lifetime of hours [in the blood] versus minutes or seconds, then it is very likely to have interesting anti-viral properties," said Graig Hill, an expert in HPAs at Georgia's (USA) Emory University. The aim with such treatments is to reduce the toxicity levels. There is a chance that Ms Nyman's recycled nuclear waste is less harmful to the body than regular HPAs. Researchers are keen to begin testing these theories.


More information on this subject: =AIDS-08-26-02&cat=AS

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