Anthropologist Helps Search for AIDS Cure

Dr. Joe Bastien

It’s no accident that anthropologist Dr. Joe Bastien’s discovery of a plant from Bolivia may one day provide a cure for HIV and AIDS. After all, the retired UT Arlington professor has been studying the South American herbalists and their remedies for more than 40 years.

Last year, two University of California at Irvine professors published a paper on HIV integrase inhibitors, citing Bastien’s work with the Kallawaya Indians and indigenous plant life in Bolivia as the root of their research. Bastien’s own relationship with retired Texas Christian University professor Dr. Manfred Reinecke, who mentored the UC-Irvine scientists, led to a trip to Bolivia to collect samples.

“I started out collecting medicinal plants,” Bastien said, “believing there was an anti-viral quality which would be effective for treating AIDS. This isn’t a shot in the dark. For every illness in nature, there’s a cure.”

More than 100 samples from 60 species of plants were collected and studied. Bastien said there are more than 30,000 different kinds of plants in an area that stretches from 21,000-foot peaks in the Andes Mountain range down to sea level in the Amazon River basin.

Bastien, who speaks seven different languages and lived with several of the tribes during his research work, said collecting random plants samples wasn’t enough – input from local herbalists was crucial as well.

“These herbalists had 1,000 years of curing the body’s ailments, so the idea was to work with native healers instead of taking random plants,” he said. “We had to find out which ones they thought were the most effective. Whenever we have a disease that doesn’t seem to have a cure nature comes back with an antiviral that wipes it out. So the idea became let’s go back and look into what people in the Amazon were doing.”

Bastien’s field expertise and knowledge of the region has been recognized before. In 2002, he received La Cruz Andina de Oro from the Bolivian government for his research, publications, and contributions towards health and welfare of the Bolivian people over his career. He served as advisor to health programs in Bolivia, and contributed to improving rural health for the Aymara and Quechua Indians of Bolivia. In 2003, he represented the United States at the World Health Organization (WHO) meetings in Kobe, Japan, and contributing to WHO’s global atlas on alternative medicinal practices.

Though he retired last year, Bastien is still active in consulting and mentoring colleagues and former students. He said his anthropological work with biologists and botanists “proves the importance of interdisciplinary work, where liberal arts and science combine to work together.”

He also used his experience to press his students to look beyond textbooks and papers and into the world around them.

“I’m a big proponent of salvage ethnology: trying to save the natural information that native people have,” he said. “Living, walking, and talking with them and documenting their knowledge – that’s where the real reward is.”

(Story by James Dunning, COLA Communications)

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