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Tracking HIV in its Final Refuge

Alain Lafeuillade
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Posted on Friday, 29 July 2011
in Fundamental Science

Researchers are whittling down the places for HIV to hide, and the general consensus is that it's just a matter of time before a cure is found.  HIV is in its final refuge.

Over the years, the medical technology and know-how available to attack HIV and AIDS has progressively increased, which has lengthened the life spans of those who live with HIV.  Antiretroviral (ART) medications have strengthened, and encouraging signs have been made toward making HIV a chronic, yet manageable disease.  With ART, the viral load in the blood can be reduced from millions per milliliter to fewer than 50.  With the right treatment, an HIV-infected person can actually expect to live as long as someone who is HIV negative.  The only thing missing from the equation is an outright cure for HIV, and it is something that physicians, scientists, and researchers alike have been searching for for decades.


So, with all these advancements in ART, why is HIV persisting?  Why is it hanging around?  The HIV virus lies dormant in brain and gut cells, and for whatever reason, current ART treatments cannot get to these viruses in order to kill them.  The new approach is the complete opposite to what's been used currently--attempt to activate the dormant viruses, forcing the viruses to kill themselves within the cells they call home or encourage the body's immune system to attack them.  Scientists hope that interleukin-7 is just that thing.
Interleukin-7 is a naturally-occurring drug in the body and encourages the production of the T-cells that HIV love to use to replicate.  When the T-cell is dormant, it's not producing proteins, and a lack of protein production means that the HIV inside T-cells can't take over the process for itself.  Instead of going that route, the other method would be to attack the viruses head on.  By inhibiting histone deacetylases--the enzymes that control DNA packing within cells and keep the deeply-embedded HIV genes from activating--the goal is to have those HIV genes activate instead.  So far, tests have been positive, but there is much work left to be done.


The approaches mentioned here represent significant progress, but there still isn't a definitive way to active all of the dormant virus within the body in order for the body's immune system to kill it.  While the drugs currently available don't go as far as eliminating the HIV in the reservoirs within the cells, these new methods present ways to activate the remaining virus to attempt to eliminate as much of it as possible.

Researchers are whittling down the places for HIV to hide, and the general consensus is that it's just a matter of time before a cure is found.  HIV is in its final refuge.

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