On the eve of the International AIDS Conference, which begins in Mexico City Sunday, researchers at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston claim to have discovered a way to destroy the HIV virus that causes AIDS. If their hopes are confirmed in further tests, it could represent a major breakthrough in fighting the deadly disease. But, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, much work needs to be done to test the theory.
Part of the problem in developing medicines for AIDS and HIV-infected patients has been the complexity of the HIV virus and its ability to mutate quickly, making an end run around treatments. But Dr. Sudhir Paul, professor of pathology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, says he and fellow researchers have found the virus' weak spot.
"We have discovered a part of HIV, a small region on the surface of HIV, that is mostly unchangeable," he said. "The reason that is unchangeable is that the virus must keep it constant so that it can attach itself to cells."
The unchangeable part of the virus is a section of a key protein that does not mutate. This, says Dr. Paul, is the Achilles' heel of the HIV virus.
"We have a way of attacking this part of the virus using molecules called catalytic antibodies or abzymes," he said. "These are antibodies with enzymatic activity. They can catalyze the breakdown of thousands of virus particles per molecule of the antibody."
The theory developed by Dr. Paul and his colleague Dr. Miguel Escobar has held up in lab tests with animals and the next step is to try it with humans. A report on their findings so far will be presented at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City next week.
The immediate promise of the research would be a more effective treatment for people infected with HIV, but Dr. Paul says there is also hope of producing a vaccine to prevent infection in the first place.
"That is the eventual goal, to develop a preparation that can induce immunity to the virus over the entire life span," he said.
Dr. Paul says the medication and vaccine that could be produced, if his theory holds up in clinical tests, would also address a major problem with current treatments-the high cost. He says replicating the abzymes and producing a vaccine could be relatively cheap.
"Current medicines are quite expensive, they run in thousands of dollars per year, and our antibodies could be used in small amounts and, therefore, the 'cost of goods' would be smaller," he said.
But the Texas researchers caution that many hurdles remain before they can fully realize their hopes and help the tens of millions of people around the world who are infected with HIV. So far, Dr. Paul says much of the funding for the research here in Houston has come from the National Institutes of Health, but much more money would be needed for full-scale clinical tests with human patients. Even if all goes well, it will take at least five years before this research could help HIV-infected people.
There have been many disappointments in the AIDS research field over the past few decades. As recently as July 17, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases abandoned a plan to test what had been seen as its most promising vaccine. But Dr. Paul says the discovery of the weak spot in the HIV virus holds great promise and offers hope to those around the world who struggle every day with the physical and psychological effects of the virus.