There's been a breakthrough in AIDS research. Scientists have found out where HIV, the AIDS virus, hides when it's under attack from anti-retroviral drugs.
So far, the drugs have managed to keep HIV at very low levels in the body. But they are unable to get rid of the virus completely. Scientists have been searching for places where the virus could hide. Now, they believe they have found them. The discovery could eventually lead to better treatments and perhaps a cure.
Professor Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, scientific director at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Port St. Lucie, Florida, spoke to VOA about the difficulty in finding HIV's hiding places.
"We had some clues, but nobody had been able to identify precisely the cells in which it was hiding," he says.
Assumptions were wrong
"Everybody went with the assumption that by using more and more potent drugs that target the virus that we were going to be able to get rid of it. And in fact what we found is that that will never work," he says.
He says a different approach is needed to eliminate the virus.
"You have to target not the virus, but the cells in which the virus is hiding. And that I think it is a very different concept than what everybody has been pushing for. That clearly is a major finding that we have got to the table," he says.
So, where is HIV hiding?
"HIV is hiding in a cell…that can remain in your body for the rest of your life. It's a very important cell in the immune system. This is the kind of cells that are called memory T-cells. They are the cells that carry the memory of seeing an infectious disease," he says.
When a person is vaccinated against a particular disease, these memory T-cells remember how to respond if that pathogen is somehow introduced into the body. They then launch a very specific attack.
But, they are also the perfect hiding place for HIV.
"So, we honed down on these cells, identified precisely as the cells as the ones where the virus was hiding," he says.
Like a chameleon
"It's important to understand the virus evolves. It kills the cells that can mount the immune response… and it hides in those cells that remain in the body for the rest of your life…. And so it adapts like a chameleon," he says.
Now that HIV's hiding places have been discovered, what's next?
"I think what we need to do now, and that really is going to be…our major challenge, is really to find drugs that can kill the cells in which the virus is hiding without affecting the memory T-cells that are good for the body," he says.
He says he's "quite optimistic" researchers will be able to develop such drugs "because we've already gone a long way in targeting specifically those cells."
Sekaly says there's a "long way ahead," however, to find such medications, "but at least now we have a target."
He says advances in science in recent years should help speed the search.