Growing up in a metropolitan city of New Delhi, India, Dr. Sonia Arora remembers, as a child, going to visit relatives in rural areas on summer vacation and everyone using Neem twigs to clean their teeth or applying Neem paste over wounds or on their skin.
“When asked why they were doing those things, my aunts would say, ‘It’s good for you, it will make your skin glow and you will not get any disease,’” said Arora.
Throughout her academic career, those very memories stayed with her. So when the opportunity arose at Kean University to have her own laboratory and establish her own projects, Arora decided to explore Neem and other natural products from the Indian subcontinent.
Neem (scientific name: Azadirachta indica) is a tree in the mahogany family, meliaceae. The evergreen is often referred to as “The Village Pharmacy” because of its widespread use in folk medicine. Extract prepared from its bark, leaf and seed has been shown to possess antihelminthic, antifungal, antibacterial and anti-malarial properties.
In a recent in vitro study, crude extract prepared from Neem leaves showed anti-HIV activity. However, the exact mechanism of action of this remains unknown. In response, Dr. Sonia Arora, assistant professor in Kean’s NJ Center for Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) program, developed a faculty-student research study to identify the molecular target of anti-HIV-1 action of Neem compounds. Arora worked closely with senior biomedicine major Khushbu Solanki on the project; who served as both student researcher and student mentor to Jananiga Vanniyasingam.
As part of the study, the research team employed structural bioinformatics techniques to create a small database of all the compounds known to be present in crude extracts of Azadirachta indica.
“We performed molecular docking studies to deduce the most plausible target for Neem compounds,” said Arora. “We hypothesize that compounds found in Neem may interact with various proteins essential for either entry or replicative life cycle of the HIV-1 virus.”
Recently, the trio attended Experimental Biology (EB) 2012 in San Diego. EB is a multidisciplinary, scientific meeting comprised of nearly 14,000 educators and scientists from around the world. At the event, the STEM researchers were among only a handful of poster presenters to have a press release developed by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on the study and its initial findings.
“The goal of the project was to determine if any of the 20 Neem compounds tested were interacting with the active sites of four HIV-1 life cycle proteins – gp41 entry protein, reverse transcriptase, integrase and protease,” said Solanki, whose longtime interest in biomedicine grew when a relative was diagnosed with cancer. “The hypothesis was that if the Neem compounds were interacting with one or more HIV protein(s), those HIV proteins would be inhibited and this would inhibit HIV virus activity.”
The study found that three of the Neem compounds were effective against the protease HIV protein. In vitro assays are currently underway to further verify the researchers in silico data.The scientific name for neem is Azadirachta indica. Its name is derived from the Persian: azad = free, dirakht = tree, i - Hind = of Indian Origin. Literally, neem means “The Free Tree of India.”