Bitter Melon: The Source of the Next Promising Anti-HIV Drug?

Back in the 1980s almost anything big is cool. Large and outrageously baggy clothes. Humungous, bizarre hair styles. Monstrous cassette players with booming speakers blaring out loud Hip Hop bass. It was the perfect time to come into age for most teens.

Yet there was one particular big thing that was not cool for some children of the 80s: HIV.

Back then HIV was seen as some new kind of devastating plague. Getting HIV in the 1980s meant outright condemnation and unnecessary abhorrence from society. There were times during the early part of the 80s where medical technicians clad in space suit-like protective gears to take patients suffering from severe opportunistic infections out of their houses. And the worst part was that there was virtually no HIV/AIDS treatment then.

One can just imagine the severe physical, mental, and social anguish an HIV positive person go through back in the 80s. Fortunately, years of scientific research have paid off and many drugs were developed to treat HIV. One of these drugs is the antiretrovirals or ARVs. Introduced back in 1996, ARVs are perhaps the most common anti-HIV drug today. ARVs have really helped in improving the quality of life of HIV infected people.

But there’s one throwback: ARVs are costly. Some HIV positive patients, particularly those living in impoverished nations, are not able to procure ARVs and still suffer greatly from the onslaught of AIDS. So scientists and patients alike have been embarking on a quest to discover a less expensive treatment for HIV/AIDS. One of the most promising alternative treatments for HIV/AIDS is the exotic tropical vegetable bitter melon.

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is a vine native to tropical Asia. For centuries, Asians have been using its fruits, leaves and seeds to relieve a variety of illnesses, such as constipation, dyspepsia, malaria and diabetes. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic spread to Asia in the 80s, many infected people turned to bitter melon to reverse the tide of regressing immune functions.

The potential of Momordica charantia as HIV treatment received a popular boost when Filipino-American Stanley Rebultan’s case appeared widely in the press. Rebultan was diagnosed as HIV positive back in 1987. Yet he did not take any meds for several months since his T-cell counts were normal. After some time, Rebultan was alarmed that his T-cell levels were drastically dropping. He asked his doctor if he can take AZT, which was the hottest anti-HIV drug that time, but his doctor was not familiar with the drug and told him not to take it.

At this point, Rebultan visited his family in the Philippines and was told by a friend that bitter melon, a well-known local vegetable, is effective in treating leukemia. He toyed with the naïve theory that bitter melon may work with HIV since he thought that is also a disease of the blood like leukemia. So he started taking bitter melon liquid regularly and was stunned that his T-cell levels increased dramatically.

After Rebultan’s miracle-like story came out, Dr. Quincai Zhange, a Chinese scientist, released a study stating that HIV positive patients who took bitter melon for a period of four months above have significantly normalized T-cell ratios. In Zhang’s study, it was found out that something in bitter melon has the ability to inhibit HIV. Later studies have discovered that these HIV-inhibitor compounds in bitter melon are proteins AP 30 and momorcharain.

Further experiments are still being conducted in order to clinically validate the effectiveness of the HIV inhibitor compounds in Momordica charantia. But the potential of bitter melon to treat HIV still remains immense.