US scientists believe a synthetic version of a traditional Pacific medicine could hold the key to finding a cure for HIV/AIDS.
In Samoa, traditional healers have long used the bark of the mamala tree in tea to treat ailments such as hepatitis.
A recent meeting of the American Chemical Society was told the bark contains prostratin, which can be used to activate HIV viruses inside latent cells.
Lead researcher, Professor Paul Wender, told Pacific Beat until now, the latent virus has been beyond the range of effective conventional treatments, which target the active virus.
"What we hope to do is to get at the root of the disease, rather than snipping off leaves above ground, as is the case right now. It's very, very important to do, it stops progression of HIV-AIDS, but we need to get at the root," he said.
"We know that current therapy...is able to keep the active virus under control — it suppresses the active virus to undetectable levels.
"But if one stops taking one's medications, that active virus is resupplied by the latent virus, so what we need to attack is the latent virus, the source of the active virus and that's what these compounds do."
Prof Wender's team has been working to create synthetic versions of prostratin which are 100 times as potent.
The group is also developing synthetic versions of bryostatin, a substance that occurs in sea creatures called bryozoans.
Prof Wender said the synthetic 'analogs' also allow compounds which were rare in nature to be used in large-scale treatment.
He said learning from nature could allow scientists to develop new treatments for a variety of conditions.
"We can make things that are better than the natural product — that's not a position of arrogance, it simply means that nature's making these natural products and other materials for its own uses and its own ecosystem, not neccessarily to treat AIDS or treat cancer or Alzheimer's disease," he said.
"But we could learn how nature is using these compounds, and then think about it — connect the dots — to the problems that we're trying to solve, and then modify them so they could do things that have never been done before."