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Mutant HIV Protein Cure Research

A cure for AIDS could be in the form of a mutant HIV protein

Associate Professor David Harrich works in QIMRs molecular virology laboratoryAustralian researchers have reignited our excitement and hope for an AIDS cure in the near future.

In a recently released study, researchers from Queensland Institute of Medical Research reported that their laboratory experiments were successful in halting the replication of HIV in cells.

The researchers announced that they have found a way to modify a key protein used by the virus for replication, so that HIV can no longer overpower the immune system. The modified protein has been termed Nullbasic.

“I have never seen anything like it. The modified protein works every time,” Associate Professor David Harrich, QIMR’s Molecular Virology Laboratory

Once developed, the treatment method would rely on a process known as ‘gene therapy’, whereby stem cells are removed from a patient, modified in a laboratory, and reinserted into the original patient. In this approach, the modified stem cells keep HIV infection dormant, allow regeneration of a person’s immune system, thereby preventing progression to AIDS. This approach is very similar to the case of the ‘Berlin Patient’, who in 2008 was cured of HIV as a result of a complex bone marrow transplant, using bone marrow from an HIV resistant donor.

Although the research is only in the early stages, if successful, it holds the potential to become a one-off, long-term therapy that protects the immune system from the effects of HIV infection; consequently removing the need for daily antiretroviral therapy, which although highly effective, involves strict adherence to a daily treatment regimen of at least one pill.

The era of HIV treatment research is a world apart from thirty years ago when HIV treatment was non-existent to recent years where we are pushing for universal access to treatment; nevertheless, antiretroviral treatment poses certain difficulties. Severe side effects, adherence challenges, the risk of treatment-resistant HIV strains emerging and health system challenges, such as cost and infrastructure are limiting the capability of antiretroviral treatment to achieve universal suppression of HIV. Gene therapy, using the ‘Nullbasic ’ protein would be a ground-breaking step in the search for a cure for AIDS, since it would only be administered once.

Despite the potential of this research and the optimism surrounding it, the complex and potentially costly processes, which may prove difficult to implement in low-resource settings, could lead to the same inequality that we see today in the distribution of antiretroviral treatment. If successful, however, protein ‘Nullbasic’ could present a long-term and cost effective alternative to daily and life-long antiretroviral therapy for the millions of people currently living with HIV worldwide.

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