Jan. 23, 2007 — -- HIV patients now have a surprising and simple way to help keep their infection under control: daily doses of a mineral called selenium.
Daily selenium supplements seem to "tame" the HIV virus and strengthen the immune system, according to research published in today's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The supplement isn't a substitute for antiretroviral therapy (ART) medications, though. It should be taken in addition to standard therapies.
"Selenium alone cannot lower virus enough to improve health and cannot be substituted for the proven effects of ART," said David Pauza, a professor and assistant director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore.
Patients should consider using selenium as an additional part of their normal treatment regimen, said study principle investigator Barry Hurwitz, a professor of psychology and medicine at the University of Miami in Florida.
Researchers from the University of Miami conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of selenium supplements in 262 patients with HIV. Patients were randomly divided into two groups to take either a daily capsule containing 200 micrograms of high-selenium yeast or a daily sugar pill.
Nine months later, each patient underwent a comprehensive physical exam, and researchers realized that the selenium pills had made a real difference in the health of the HIV patients who had taken them.
Patients taking daily selenium supplements had lower levels of the virus in their bloodstream and increased immune cell counts compared to patients who took a placebo pill.
"Selenium is a lot like a lion tamer in the circus -- it's a virus tamer," Hurwitz said.
Scientists aren't sure how selenium works to tame the virus. One theory is that selenium's antioxidant powers enable it to repair damage to the immune system. A stronger immune system is better able to fight off viruses like HIV.
Given these promising early findings, doctors are now calling for more research to confirm these results and to determine whether taking selenium leads to other benefits, such as a longer life span for people with HIV.
Selenium has also been studied for possible cancer-prevention properties.
Observational studies have suggested that death from cancer -- including lung, colorectal and prostate cancers -- is lower among people with higher blood levels or intake of selenium.
Some studies suggest that selenium doesn't lower the risk of cancer death, and other studies suggest that selenium actually increases the risk of some skin cancers. So scientists cannot say for sure whether the supplement is a good or bad tool for cancer prevention.
Any patient thinking seriously about selenium supplements should talk to a doctor -- and remember that not all marketed supplements are created equal. The patients in this study were given pills that contained 200 micrograms of high selenium yeast -- a preparation that is known to be easily taken up into the bloodstream. That 200 microgram dose is a lot higher than the daily recommended allowance of selenium -- roughly 50 micrograms for adults -- but that high dose hasn't been shown to cause any bad side effects.
Any patient trying to take selenium supplements should check just how much selenium is in each supplement and how much of that selenium is bioavailable -- or available to the body.
Sometimes, supplements are made in such a way that the body can't break down all the vitamin particles completely, so not all of it gets where it needs to go.
Patients with HIV infection take many medications to suppress the virus, and any extra boost to the immune system is always welcome.
Study authors suggest that patients start taking selenium alongside their standard ART medications as part of their fight against the infection, but the supplement is no substitute for current treatments.
"Selenium may have small benefits in people whose virus is already being controlled by standard therapy," Pauza said.