Roughly 37 million people worldwide are infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that leads to AIDS. It goes without saying that both HIV and AIDS can be devastating – the virus attacks the immune system by infecting key cells that fight off cancer and infection. And based on the manner in which the HIV works, until just a few years ago, HIV treatment drugs have been limited. Meanwhile, a cure has been elusive. But a glimmer of hope is beginning to appear.
For many years, existing HIV medicines have been able to keep the infection at bay. But halting the use of these HIV treatment drugs led to a dormant HIV returning quickly. However, recent HIV research has identified a specific molecule within certain immune cells that may be the key to ridding the body of this dormant viral load. In the process, this could eliminate the need for HIV treatment drugs for good.
A Potential Cure in Sight – The Latest HIV Research Discovery
The exciting news was recently reported in a study out of the University of California in San Diego. HIV researchers identified a long non-coding RNA molecule in immune cells that is a key player in HIV virus replication. In essence, this type of RNA (called HEAL) does not encode for proteins like most RNA molecules. Instead, HEAL turns on and off other genes inside the immune cells. The researchers discovered that if they deleted HEAL, then it seems there is an elimination of dormant HIV virus for good. In other words, HIV treatment drugs that targeted HEAL might offer a real cure for HIV.
Interestingly, the HIV researchers used CRISPR-cas9 techniques to identify and remove the HEAL RNA molecule. The specific immune cells that seemed to contain this RNA were macroglia, macrophages, and T-cells. All of these are important cells in the immune system pathway. The hope is to develop HIV treatment drugs to target HEAL and eliminate it. If so, then HIV patients could stop anti-retroviral drugs without concerns that HIV would return.
Other Exciting and Noteworthy HIV Research Findings
Researchers gained more than just the HEAL RNA discovery during the conduction of HIV research. Other researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston also recently reported exciting news. In their HIV research, they identified a protein called BRD4 that appears to regulate the body’s replication of the HIV virus. These scientists developed a compound that targeted BRD4, called ZL-580 compound. The administration of this substance result in a significant delay in HIV reemergence after they stopped other HIV treatment drugs. Thus, this appears to be another potential pathway to an HIV cure. And there remains hope that HIV vaccines may exist in the near future as well.
To date, only two patients have been reportedly cured of HIV infections. One patient, called the Berlin patient, was cured in 2007 after a stem cell transplant. Likewise, a second patient this year received a similar stem cell transplant in London and is believed to be cured. The transplant consists of cells from donors who have a rare genetic mutation. This mutation provides resistance to HIV infection. But unlike the other HIV treatment drugs under consideration, stem cell transplants are risky. Likewise, they are extremely expensive and have unpredictable results to date. Therefore, the greatest hope still resides in new HIV treatment drugs that eliminate dormant HIV reservoirs.
HIV Treatment Drugs Research Plans Moving Forward
At this point, the HEAL RNA discovery offers great excitement and hope for the future. However, animal studies and subsequent human trials will be needed. If all goes well, then new HIV treatment drugs targeting HEAL in immune cells may be available for routine use. And ultimately, this could eliminate the need for longstanding HIV anti-retroviral management for millions. Not only would this greatly reduce the financial burdens of HIV but also enhance patient quality of life. For these reasons, there is a celebration of this HIV research as the potential long-awaited cure for HIV.