‘Shock and kill’: Ontario researchers make major breakthrough on the pathway to curing HIV

LONDON, ONT — Curing an HIV infection can be incredibly difficult as some of the virus hides dormant inside of cells making it essentially invisible to treatment, but now researchers out of Western University in London, Ont. believe they may have solved that problem.

Patients with HIV can manage the virus with treatment and anti-HIV drugs, but if a person stops their life-long therapies the dormant, hiding virus can rapidly re-emerge.

The hiding virus is known as the “latent reservoir” and is what prevents a cure for HIV.

“The aim is to get it all out of dormancy with a targeted punch, so the remaining virus can be killed,” said lead researcher Prof. Eric Arts.

“Now that we’ve shown that this can be done with patient samples at early HIV disease, the hope is this will lead to targeted cure strategies.”

Arts and his team say they have developed a way to pull HIV out of the latent reservoir making it visible to the immune system and providing the chance to be killed by treatment.

By studying cells from individuals who are HIV positive and receiving treatment early in disease, the team, in collaboration with Case Western Reserve University and Imperial College London, has shown that their formulation, called Activator Vector (ACT-VEC), was successful in targeting the latent HIV reservoir.

“If the virus is not replicating, the drugs can’t have an effect on it. By reactivating the virus, we can either inhibit it through antiretroviral therapy or it can be targeted by the body’s immune response,” said Jamie Mann, researcher on the study.

This strategy is known as “shock and kill.” Essentially the virus is shocked out of hiding, now researchers need to determine if they can kill it.

The team looked at whether the virus was actually hiding in the very cells that are designed to kill it, mainly T cells.

“ACT-VEC is designed specifically to activate these cells that had previously responded to HIV that now remain dormant,” said Arts.

“This activation has a dual purpose – it stimulates the remaining virus out of dormancy and induces the immune system.”

The team will now move into studying ways to kill the newly reactivated virus.

The study was published in the journal eBioMedicine where it can be read in full.

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