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Hopes of HIV cure revived with 'shock and kill' technique that rids body of dormant viruses
  By Cher Thornhill
Last updated at 9:50 AM on 05th June 2009
Path to a cure? The new 'shock and kill' technique could target dormant viruses, ridding the body of HIV
Hopes of a cure for HIV and AIDs have been revived with a new technique that appears to 'smokes out' viruses hidden in the body's cells.
Patients with HIV can today be stabilised with such effective therapies that they may survive a full lifetime.
However, some viruses stay in the body in a dormant state, preventing a proper recovery.
Now Italian researchers have developed a 'shock and kill' technique that they believe may represent a milestone in the discovery of a cure.
Dr. Enrico Garaci, president of the Italian Institute of Health, and his team studied the so-called 'barrier of latency' which has been the main obstacle to eradicating HIV from the body.
Cells harbouring a quiescent virus are responsible for HIV persisting during therapy. In other words, HIV-1 genes become installed in the human body, and many scientists have simply thought there was nothing we can do.
But the team has found a new way that could drive out the stubborn virus from infected cells so that the body's immune system or drugs have a chance to kill them.
A class of inhibitors have previously been shown to block enzymes - called histone deacetylases - which keep HIV in its dormant state, but they only work at toxic doses.
Now Dr Savarino and his team have shown that adding a second drug called buthionine sulfoximine to the treatment 'awakens' the infected cells at lower doses, while leaving the virus-free cells intact.
It is hoped that this could lead to patients being freed of the virus completely without suffering harsh side effects.
The approach has been dubbed 'shock and kill' because the infected cells are 'awakened' by the treatment and then die.
'I really hope this study may open new avenues to the development of weapons able to eliminate the HIV-infected cells from the body,' says Dr. Savarino. 'Such weapons, in combination with antiretroviral therapies, could hopefully allow people living with HIV/AIDS to get rid of the virus and return to a normal life.
'Of note, there are testable drug combinations composed of molecules that have passed phase I clinical trials for safety in humans'.
HIV remains an extremely serious condition, affecting an estimated 77,400 people in the UK last year.
Treatment for HIV has taken great strides forward, in the form of anti-retroviral therapy, allowing many patients to enjoy a normal lifespan.
But the virus still seriously affects their livelihood and can shorten survival.
Dr. Savarino said that, although the approach is largely accepted by the scientific community, many barriers remain.
He said: 'We have to take into consideration that some scientists are skeptical about this approach, and others even think that a cure for HIV/AIDS will never be found.
'Experiments using animal models will shed a new light on this difficult problem.'
A spokesman for the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV welcomed the research but with caution.
Dr Steve Taylor, lead consultant for HIV Services at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital said on behalf of BASHH: 'While this is an intriguing and novel piece of work , caution must be given when extrapolating animal model studies into successful affordable treatment strategies for the millions of people currently infected with HIV.
'While we applaud innovation and research into a potential "cure" for HIV, we are currently focusing our efforts on trying to diagnose the one third of people currently infected with HIV living in the UK who are unaware that they are infected.
'These people do not have the opportunity to receive life-saving treatment and may continue to infect others.
'We are therefore encouraging a much greater uptake of HIV testing for the population of the UK.'
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