June 24, 2009
It feels like every few months, some research team or another announces the discovery of a new way to potentially eradicate HIV. So press releases such as the one below from Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI) Florida must always be taken with a grain of salt. However, this new development in the HIV treatment field appears worth getting at least a little perked up about.
The focus of this new research is a group of immune cells called "memory T cells." It's believed that these cells are harboring "latent" forms of HIV -- HIV that manages to lie dormant within the body, hidden away from HIV medications that flow through the bloodstream. If a person stops taking HIV meds, this reservoir of hidden HIV springs back into action and the virus spreads anew, the theory goes.
Enter a team of VGTI Florida researchers, in concert with scientists from the University of Montreal. They believe they've actually been able to pinpoint the specific types of memory T cells in which HIV is hiding -- and, even better, they think they've figured out how those HIV-infected memory T cells stay alive. Armed with this information, they hope they can develop a new type of HIV treatment that attacks HIV-infected memory T cells at the same time that existing HIV meds attack other HIV-infected cells. "We believe that by attacking the disease in these distinct two ways at once for an extended period of time, we can eliminate the reservoirs of HIV that currently persist within the human body, leaving an individual disease-free," says Rafick-Pierre Sékaly, Ph.D., the scientific director of VGTI Florida.
Pretty dramatic words, no? Whether this is truly something to get excited about remains to be seen: The researchers need to test their theory in animal studies before they can even begin to see whether this approach will work in humans. But it's another sign of slow progress in a field that has long felt stagnant, and hopefully each new tidbit we learn about how HIV works will indeed bring us closer to the day we can find a cure.
You can read the full press release from VGTI Florida below. We also hope you'll leave your comments at the bottom of this page!
St. Lucie, FL -- Researchers from the newly-established VGTI Florida and the University of Montreal have uncovered a possible method for eradicating HIV infection in the human body. The researchers have also revealed new information which demonstrates how HIV persists in the body -- even in patients receiving drug treatments -- and how the virus continues to replicate itself in individuals undergoing treatment. The research findings will be published in the online version of the journal Nature Medicine on June 21 and will be featured in an upcoming print edition of the journal.
Medical advancements in the past 20 years have significantly increased the survival rates of AIDS patients. In fact, approximately 90 percent of patients infected with AIDS can survive with the disease as long as they are treated with a complex series of antiretroviral drugs.
"Current medications allow us to control HIV and limit its progression in most cases," explained Rafick-Pierre Sékaly, Ph.D., current scientific director for VGTI Florida, a former scientist at the University of Montreal, and senior author of the research paper. "However, the medications do not eradicate the disease. Instead, the disease persists within the body -- much like water in a reservoir - and is never fully destroyed. We believe our latest research may help scientists and physicians overcome this hurdle."
The research team was able to identify a possible new way of attacking HIV by first identifying the specific cells where HIV infection persists in patients currently undergoing treatment.
They found that the disease is able to survive within two subsets of memory T-cells. Memory T-cells are a portion of the body's immune system and have the ability to learn, detect and attack certain types of infectious diseases.
By infecting cells within the body's own immune system, HIV is able to avoid antiviral treatments that are effective in stopping HIV in other cell types in the body. In-effect, HIV uses the body's own defense system as a hideout.
The research team was also successful in identifying how these HIV-infected memory T-cells replenish themselves. When populating T-cells, HIV does not replicate itself as it does in other cell types on the body. Instead, HIV persists in memory T-cells through cell division -- a finding that holds significant implications for possibly stopping the disease.
"Based on this research, we believe one possible method for eliminating HIV in the body is to use a combined approach," said Dr. Sékaly. "We propose the use of medications that target viral replication of HIV throughout the body, in combination with drugs that prevent infected memory T-cells from dividing. We believe that by attacking the disease in these distinct two ways at once for an extended period of time, we can eliminate the reservoirs of HIV that currently persist within the human body, leaving an individual disease-free."
The next step for researchers is to begin testing their proposed treatment method using animal models and newly developed therapies.
"While this is a preliminary finding, we are hopeful that this research discovery will guide us in eradicating HIV infection in the body," said Dr. Sékaly.
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