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Scientists Discover an ‘Exciting’ Drug That Flushes Out The HIV Virus from Patients’ DNA

by Felix Omondi

Scientists Discover an ‘Exciting’ Drug That Flushes Out The HIV Virus from Patients’ DNA

Africa without a doubt is one continent that is most affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Statistics held by indicate about 70% of the world’s reported cases of individuals living the virus is in sub-Saharan Africa. But what is sadder is that the number of people living with the virus is on the increase; this is largely attributed to the reduced rate of deaths resulting from the virus.

While there has been no officially declared cure for the virus, scientists are working around the clock to come up with one. The latest and most-promising attempt yet has been by a team of scientist from the Aarhaus University in Denmark. Scientists say that the HIV virus can hide itself in a patient’s body for over a decade and avoid detection by becoming part of the patient’s DNA and just lie dormant. This essentially would make cure impossible since the virus can’t be diagnosed in the first place.

According to a report tabled at the AIDS 2014 Conference, a test conducted on six people showed that when a low-dose of chemotherapy is administered to the patient, the virus can be awakened. Experts acknowledged this, as a promising step, even though it is still unlikely that the drug would cure HIV on its own.

Currently, anti-viral drugs can effectively drive down the HIV virus to undetectable levels in the patient’s bloodstream. Thereby giving the patient a near-normal life expectancy, but there is another problem. The HIV virus can incorporate itself into the patient’s DNA, meaning no drug treatment or immune system can detect it or fight it, thus becoming what is known as the HIV reservoir.

Meaning when the patients stops his/her drug treatments, the virus could still ‘leap out’ of the reservoirs and the patient suffers a renewed assault. The achievement in the fight against AIDS is aimed at flushing out the virus from its reservoirs. The team of scientists from Aarhaus University conducted an experiment using the chemotherapy drug known as romidepsin, used in treating lymphoma.

The ‘subjects’ were six HIV patients who had undetectable levels of the virus. They were all given a mild dose of romidepsin once a week for three weeks. Five out of the six patients registered noticeable increase in the levels of the HIV virus in their blood.

One of the scientists in this experiment, Dr Ole Sogaard said, “Every step forward is always exciting, and I think this is quite important… We’ve shown it is possible to kick the virus out of the cells, the next step is to actually kill the cells. The trial now moves into a new phase which combines the romidepsin with something to enhance the immune system and in our case this is an HIV vaccine.”

Image Courtesy: BBC

Image Courtesy: BBC

Dr Sogaar admitted that there were a lot of scepticisms about the drug being potent enough. However, after achieving to kick out the virus hiding in the DNA, the only side-effects the drug treatment showed were the conventional side-effects associated with chemotherapy such as fatigue.

The team acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done. For instance, the team still cannot say just exactly what proportion of the cells hiding the HIV virus has been activated by the treatment. Which also leads to another question; which HIV reservoirs does the treatment successfully impact? Considering that the virus also hides in immune cells found in the blood, and also there are even bigger reservoirs found in other parts like the gut and central nervous systems. It is not clear, whether these reservoirs can also be activated by blood-based chemotherapy treatment.

Dr Sogaard says, “We know it’s a step forward, but we don’t know how big, it might just be a single step, or it could be a great leap forward.”

The romidepsin treatment works by ‘relaxing’ the tightly coiled up DNA bundles, and by doing so it exposes the HIV genetic code hiding there. This then kick starts the production of the new viruses.

Dr Andrew Freedman, from Cardiff University, said, “As a proof of concept it does look promising. The search for a cure is very much on, it’s not going to be easy and it’s unlikely a single drug like this would be sufficient. There’s a lot of doubt it would be enough to deplete the reservoir completely. Most people think a single approach will not be enough, a drug like this perhaps needs to be combined with vaccines or even gene-therapy.”

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