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Experimental Drug Boosts HIV Therapy's Effectiveness

  • Jessica Berman

Advocates from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and other community organizations demonstrate outside the Chinese Embassy, Jan. 28, 2017 in Washington, D.C. The demonstration is part of the “Fund the Fund” advocacy campaign, which calls on China, the world’s second largest economic power, to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by making a $1 billion contribution.

An experimental compound boosts the effectiveness of HIV drugs so they may only have to be taken once or twice a year. The developers say the drug, which is not a cure, could make compliance with HIV treatment easier.

The virus that causes AIDS has a number of ways to survive in human cells despite treatment.

One mechanism involves disarming a biological process known as autophagy. Under normal circumstances, autophagy allows cells to sweep away debris, including viruses; but, by suppressing this function, HIV is able to keep on infecting white blood cells, eventually leading to a breakdown of the protective immune system.

Combination therapy

Now, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York have successfully tested the drug, called URMC-099, that, when combined with two reformulated antiretroviral drugs, frees up this cleansing function. That allows cells to digest any remnants of the AIDS virus that are left behind after treatment.

By itself, without the HIV drugs, 099 has no antiviral effect and researchers are exploring the reason; but. in combination, it could lead to the development of long-lasting HIV therapy whose effects could last for six or even 12 months.

Harris Gelbard is director of the university's Center for Neurodevelopment and Disease and one of the innovators of this experimental agent.

“We've actually been able to clear virus [HIV] from lymph nodes, spleen, liver, brain and keep it in check for far greater lengths of time than would normally be the case," he reported.

Available to all?

Gelbard said long-acting HIV drugs would improve compliance with the regimen. He notes resistance to AIDS drugs can develop if a patient misses a single dose.

Gelbard says the aim is to make the experimental drug widely available.

“We don't want this to be in the purview of Western medicine where it costs $100,000 for treatment, because that's never going to reach Saharan Africa or eastern Asia," he said. "No, we want this available in much the same way that you could have people [clinicians] traveling around and giving shots to folks in villages that would let them live with this disease but in a far more manageable fashion.”

Gelbard said he expects to begin human clinical trials with URMC-099 sometime next year with it becoming available within five years.

The results of his studies in human cells and mice were published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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