Researchers aim to cure HIV with a 'fundamentally different' method

Significant progress has been made in treating and, in very rare cases, curing HIV infections in humans. Though the virus can be controlled by taking a daily regimen of drugs, scientists are working toward a solution to completely eliminate the virus from the body. In a new announcement, researchers say they're going to tackle this challenge using a "fundamentally different" approach than past methods.

A group of international researchers collectively operating under the term HIV Obstruction by Programmed Epigenetics (HOPE) Collaboratory, will use more than $26 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a new strategy for fully curing, rather than just treating, HIV infections in humans.

Researchers from three institutes will lead the new project: Weill Cornell Medicine, Gladstone Institutes, and Scripps Research Florida. The group plans to target HIV infections in "novel ways" in order to effectively "silence" and completely remove the virus from the body.

The current method for 'curing' HIV involves what the researchers call "shock and kill." This method requires the researchers to reactivate latent HIV in the body, bringing it to the surface — in a manner of speaking — so that it can be eliminated with antiretroviral therapy.

The problem with this, in addition to triggering the severe side effects of reactivating the virus, is that some of the latent virus continues to lurk in the body, forcing the patient to remain on a daily regimen of drugs to suppress the virus. Rather than building upon this method, the HOPE Collaboratory will approach the matter from an entirely different angle.

The new method will involve targeting the HIV virus without having to reactivate it. Key to the work are ancient viruses that have become integrated into the human genome over vast periods of time similar to the way HIV can integrate into the genome — the big difference being that those ancient viruses are "silenced" while HIV is active.

The researchers aim to block HIV from reactivating by using small molecules to "lock" the virus in its dormant state. This would effectively silence the virus, rather than allowing it to persist in a latent state, meaning that it wouldn't reactivate even if the patient's drug therapy was stopped.

HOPE Collaboratory principal investigator Melanie Ott, MD, Ph.D., explained:

This is a fundamentally different approach to targeting HIV than what everyone else has been trying. I think it's extremely important for us to explore a broad range of scientific approaches to find the best cure for people living with HIV, as quickly as we can.

Image via Michael Short/Gladstone Institutes