In the 30+ years since the HIV/AIDS virus was identified, incredible scientific advances have led to the development of drugs that effectively prevent viral progression, allowing people living with HIV to enjoy longer, healthier lives. With viral suppression nearly mastered, the focus in HIV/AIDS research turns to complete eradication of the virus from an infected body. While some research groups work to develop a vaccine, others seek to destroy viral reservoirs.
Kick and Kill Approach to Eliminating Viral Reservoirs
HIV/AIDS researchers generally consent that the difficulty in ridding the body of the virus is the presence of viral reservoirs—stores of dormant viral DNA in host cells that, because they are inactive, are not identified and attacked by the immune system. For the body to effectively destroy viral reservoirs, they must first be activated.
The “kick and kill” approach to viral reservoirs involves introducing an agent in the body that wakes up these viral stores so that the immune system can target them. The problem to this method currently is that there is no way to “turn off” the activating agent so that the immune system is not overwhelmed by viral replication, a situation that would simply fast-track the progression of infection.
The Lock-In Alternative
Researchers in Japan have devised an alternative approach to activate and destroy HIV reservoirs. The compound L-HIPPO is introduced to HIV-infected cells by a carrier where it bonds to a particular HIV protein. This bond seems to both activate the viral replication process while simultaneously inhibiting viral budding, or release. As a result, the infected cell naturally dies (a process called apoptosis). This method of combatting HIV, in a sense, quarantines the activated virus, preventing viral spread and managing the demand on the immune system to remove infected (dead) cells.
The Kumamoto University researchers are encouraged by early success of the “lock-in and apoptosis” method but acknowledge that further testing is required to ensure a carrier can effectively be delivered via medication and that such medication poses no significant risks to human patients.