A Kenyan scientist is among a team of researchers who have discovered a new drug that can potentially cure HIV.
In what is being termed a major collaborative effort, the researchers have for the first time inched closer to finding a cure for HIV after successfully eliminating the virus in living mice.
Dr Benson Edagwa, an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre (UNMC) and researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, used a combination of a modified ARV treatment to keep the virus at low activity levels, along with a powerful gene-editing technique that snipped out HIV genes from infected cells.
With an estimated 19.6 million people in East and Southern Africa — 1.5 million Kenyans — living with HIV and about 380,000 recorded deaths, the journey to getting a cure seems to be nearing the homestretch. If HIV is not treated, it can turn into Aids, a disease in which the virus badly damages the immune system.
In a study involving 29 mice, in some of the animals the team used a combination of gene-editing technology (CRISPR) and a therapeutic treatment called LASER ART to erase HIV DNA from the genomes of animals in what they call an unprecedented study that was published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
In various tests, the scientists found no trace of the virus in 30 per cent of the animals.
“This observation is the first step toward showing for the first time, to my knowledge, that HIV is a curable disease,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Kamel Khalili, director of the Neurovirology and the Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Centre at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
LASER ART is a medication found to be effective when released slowly over a long period of time. With LASER ART, traditional anti-HIV drugs are tweaked so they develop a crystal structure, and are then encased in fat-soluble particles.
As a result, the drugs are able to slip through the membranes of cells in places where HIV tends to hide, like the liver, lymph tissue, and spleen where the cells’ enzymes start to release the drug.
Kill dormant viruses
This not only targets viral sanctuaries but also maintains HIV replication at low levels for extended periods of time, reducing the frequency of ART administration.
The crystal structure releases the drugs more slowly, allowing them to continue killing dormant viruses as they start to emerge and replicate for months rather than days or weeks, like the conventional forms of the medicines.
It is half a century since the first known HIV-related death and two patients appear to have been cured of the virus. Whereas modern ARV treatment can already suppress HIV to the point that it has no impact on life expectancy, and even make it untransmittable, the “London patient”, announced earlier this year to have been cured of HIV offers something more: The hope of freedom from a virus that 37 million people worldwide are living with.
Last month, Kenya launched a clinical human trial of a vaccine that has the potential to stop HIV infecting cells. Scientists involved in the trial said on Friday during final preparatory meetings that recruitment for the trial would begin in the next three weeks.
ON THE CUSP
The new vaccine being tested will apply a ‘block approach’ in stopping HIV from attaching itself onto cells. HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids. The virus attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells.
The clinical trial, code-named ‘IAVI W001 trial. 664gp140. W001’, will test the vaccine candidate dubbed BG505 SOSIP — a molecule cloned to look exactly as the HIV one — on Kenyan volunteers to check for safety.
“We are going to the root cause. We are going after the virus that’s already integrated in the genome of the host cell,” said co-author of the report, Dr Howard Gendelman, chairman of UNMC’s pharmacology and experimental neuroscience department and director of the Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases.
“We are at the cusp of a scientific revolution in human genomes that can change the course, quality and longevity of life,” he said.