Australian scientists at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research say they have found a way to use the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, to prevent AIDS, describing the technique as "fighting fire with fire."
Senior researcher David Harrich has designed a way to modify a protein in HIV to alter the virus so that it provides long-lasting, and possibly permanent, protection against AIDS, the disease that HIV causes.
In his experiments, Harrich altered a protein that is a critical component of all living cells and includes many substances, among them - antibodies and hormones - which would usually help the virus to grow. Instead, the modified protein helps to prevent the virus from replicating or spreading.
Patients would still be infected with HIV, said Harrich, but it would not develop into AIDS.
“This therapy is potentially a cure for AIDS. So it's not a cure for HIV infection, but it potentially could end the disease. [That's] because the immune system that protects you from opportunistic infections that normally is the cause of AIDS is actually the opportunistic infection, not the HIV, because your immune system becomes run down," explained Harrich. "So this protein present in immune cells would help to maintain a healthy immune system so that patients would be able to handle normal infections.”
The study is published in the journal Human Gene Therapy.
Harrich's team conducted the experiments in a laboratory. Thorough testing on animals is needed before any human trials can begin. They are scheduled to start later this year.
In Australia, more than 30,000 people have been diagnosed with HIV. Without treatment they will develop AIDS. According to the World Health Organization, 2.5 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2011. It is estimated that 1.7 million people died that year from the virus.
Harrich said he believes his new therapy could make a difference to millions of people.
“I think what people are looking for is basically a means to go on and live happy and productive lives with as little intrusion as possible." he said. "And so, you know, the only way you can do that is one, you either have to eliminate the virus infection, or alternatively, you have to eliminate the disease process. And that's what this could do, potentially for a very long time.”
Using a therapy based on a single protein could end multiple drug regimes for HIV patients, meaning a better quality of life and lower costs.
However, scientists say that creating a drug that turns HIV against itself would be challenging and Australian researchers conceded that there were still “many hurdles to clear.”