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New HIV Fighting Innovation Could Help Lead to a Cure for AIDS

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A new therapy may be able to kill  — and not just suppress — cells infected with HIV.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine have discovered what might be a powerful new weapon in the fight against HIV — a compound therapy that can actually kill latent HIV-infected cells.

It’s been years since a positive HIV diagnosis was necessarily a death sentence, but while current antiretroviral therapies can “reduce the amount of virus in the body to undetectable levels,” they can’t actually eliminate the disease. If a patient stops the drugs, the virus starts replicating again. This means that, at least for now, HIV requires lifetime treatment. And for some people, that treatment comes with serious side effects.

But the UNC team thinks they’ve made strides toward a new therapy that may be able to kill — and not just suppress — cells infected with the virus. The treatment, an antibody combined with a bacterial toxin, would work as a sort of one-two punch against HIV: first, an antibody called 3B3 recognizes cells “expressing a specific HIV protein” on their surfaces and attaches to that protein. Then, the bacterial toxin, PE38, can enter and kill the infected cells.

While it’s a major step in the “kick-and-kill” strategy for eradicating HIV, there’s still a long way to go before the treatments hits the mainstream. So far, the new therapy has only been tested in lab mice — BLT mice with specially-engineered, humanized immune systems, but still, mice — and although it’s mostly working, it’s not yet working completely. In the UNC study, the “molecular missile” treatment caused a six-fold drop in the number of infected cells — the “vast majority” of them, but not all.

Still, the scientists are optimistic about the treatment’s possibilities: at the very least, says lead researcher Victor Garcia, “this study shows us that it’s possible to attack and kill hidden HIV-infected cells that standard therapy can’t touch.” 

Image via Veer