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TED2015

Patience Mthunzi: Could we cure HIV with lasers?

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Views 1,210,982

Swallowing pills to get medication is a quick, painless and often not entirely effective way of treating disease. A potentially better way? Lasers. In this passionate talk, TED Fellow Patience Mthunzi explains her idea to use lasers to deliver drugs directly to cells infected with HIV. It's early days yet, but could a cure be on the horizon?

- Laser scientist
Patience Mthunzi wants to use lasers to deliver medicines more effectively. Full bio

What do you do when you have a headache?
00:12
You swallow an aspirin.
00:15
But for this pill to get
to your head, where the pain is,
00:18
it goes through your stomach, intestines
and various other organs first.
00:22
Swallowing pills is the most effective
and painless way of delivering
00:28
any medication in the body.
00:34
The downside, though, is that swallowing
any medication leads to its dilution.
00:37
And this is a big problem,
particularly in HIV patients.
00:43
When they take their anti-HIV drugs,
00:48
these drugs are good for lowering
the virus in the blood,
00:51
and increasing the CD4 cell counts.
00:56
But they are also notorious
for their adverse side effects,
00:58
but mostly bad, because they get diluted
by the time they get to the blood,
01:03
and worse, by the time
they get to the sites
01:08
where it matters most:
within the HIV viral reservoirs.
01:11
These areas in the body --
such as the lymph nodes,
01:17
the nervous system,
as well as the lungs --
01:22
where the virus is sleeping,
01:25
and will not readily
get delivered in the blood
01:27
of patients that are under
consistent anti-HIV drugs therapy.
01:30
However, upon discontinuation of therapy,
01:36
the virus can awake
and infect new cells in the blood.
01:40
Now, all this is a big problem in treating
HIV with the current drug treatment,
01:44
which is a life-long treatment
that must be swallowed by patients.
01:51
One day, I sat and thought,
01:55
"Can we deliver anti-HIV directly
within its reservoir sites,
01:57
without the risk of drug dilution?"
02:03
As a laser scientist,
the answer was just before my eyes:
02:06
Lasers, of course.
02:11
If they can be used for dentistry,
02:12
for diabetic wound-healing and surgery,
02:15
they can be used for anything imaginable,
02:18
including transporting drugs into cells.
02:21
As a matter of fact,
we are currently using laser pulses
02:25
to poke or drill extremely tiny holes,
02:30
which open and close almost
immediately in HIV-infected cells,
02:34
in order to deliver drugs within them.
02:39
"How is that possible?" you may ask.
02:42
Well, we shine a very powerful
but super-tiny laser beam
02:45
onto the membrane of HIV-infected cells
02:51
while these cells are immersed
in liquid containing the drug.
02:55
The laser pierces the cell,
while the cell swallows the drug
03:00
in a matter of microseconds.
03:05
Before you even know it,
03:07
the induced hole
becomes immediately repaired.
03:09
Now, we are currently testing
this technology in test tubes
03:13
or in Petri dishes,
03:17
but the goal is to get
this technology in the human body,
03:19
apply it in the human body.
03:23
"How is that possible?" you may ask.
03:25
Well, the answer is:
through a three-headed device.
03:28
Using the first head, which is our laser,
03:33
we will make an incision
in the site of infection.
03:36
Using the second head, which is a camera,
03:40
we meander to the site of infection.
03:43
Finally, using a third head,
which is a drug-spreading sprinkler,
03:45
we deliver the drugs directly
at the site of infection,
03:50
while the laser is again used
to poke those cells open.
03:53
Well, this might not seem
like much right now.
03:58
But one day, if successful,
this technology can lead
04:02
to complete eradication
of HIV in the body.
04:07
Yes. A cure for HIV.
04:11
This is every HIV researcher's dream --
04:14
in our case, a cure lead by lasers.
04:17
Thank you.
04:20
(Applause)
04:21

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About the speaker:

Patience Mthunzi - Laser scientist
Patience Mthunzi wants to use lasers to deliver medicines more effectively.

Why you should listen

Patience Mthunzi is a research group leader at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa. There, she uses laser "tweezers" to try and separate diseased cells from healthy ones. She's also developed a way to use laser pulses to target drug delivery into cells.

Born in Soweto, Patience got her PhD in physics from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 2012, she was named one of 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes magazine; that same year she was given the Order of Mapungubwe for her contribution in the field of biophotonics. She's also a TED Fellow.

More profile about the speaker
Patience Mthunzi | Speaker | TED.com