London – As reported in The Guardian, more than 50 years after it jumped the species barrier and became one of the most devastating viruses to affect mankind, HIV remains a stubborn adversary. Treatment has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, but people who are infected will remain so for the rest of their lives, and must take one pill daily – at one time it was a cocktail of 30. Dr Jonathan Angel, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute said, “In my personal opinion, our therapies have become so good that looking at better therapies has become futile. People are taking a pill once a day with no side effects. That’s hard to improve upon.”

But now scientists are beginning to ask if the biggest breakthrough – an out-and-out cure for the tens of millions who have contracted the virus – could be in sight. The excitement lies in research that is having some success in drawing the virus out of a latent stage (in which it can lie undetected for long periods) so that it could be destroyed. These “latently infected” cells can launch new, resistant attacks if treatment is discontinued. Satish Pillai, an associate professor in HIV research from the University of California, San Francisco, said, “We’re now attempting to find the holy grail of HIV research …. In the first instance, we want to identify the signature characteristics, in a reliable and accurate way, of latently infected cells …. The other side is that we’re developing novel strategies to destroy them once we’re able to identify them.”

There are a number of different approaches currently being studied. One approach, often named the “kick and kill” or “shock and kill,” aims to kick the resting cells out of their sleep so they can be pinpointed and eliminated. The other research approach wants to find and destroy the HIV-infected cells while they’re still in the resting state. The key to doing this would be finding something distinct about an infected, resting cell – as opposed to a healthy one – so that an antiviral agent can target them. Scientists call this elusive target a biomarker. There is promising work being done with antiviral-viruses – viruses that are engineered to target and destroy other viruses. A specific strain, the rhabdovirus called Maraba virus (MG1), has been engineered to seek out faulty cell communication, something that happens in both cancer and HIV. A difference as small as this, between healthy and unhealthy cells, is enough for something like MG1 to target. (The Guardian at theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/30/cure-for-hiv-world-aids-day)

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