A team of French researchers have finally achieved a milestone by sniffing out a specific protein, called CD32a, that gives away the information about hidden HIV in the body.
When people start taking Drugs to cure of the disease, it stows away in secret reservoirs in the immune system. But once they stop taking drug treatment, the virus come back from its latent state. That is the reason why people infected with HIV have to spend a lifetime on expensive drugs.
A researcher from University of Montpellier in France, Monsef Benkirane said
“Since 1996, the dream has been to kill these nasty cells in hiding, but we had no way to do it because we had no way to recognize them,”
It is found that the protein hangs out on the surface of T cells with the latent HIV infection, but is not found on uninfected T cells, or even T cells with active HIV. Having CD32a as a biomarker for HIV reservoirs means researchers have better chance to track the virus down in a patient’s blood.
With the discovery now scientists could concentrate on finding the ways to get rid of the nasty cells.
The team first detected the protein in a lab-made model of HIV infection, before moving on to test it as a biomarker in actual blood samples from 12 people who live with HIV and are receiving treatment.
They separated T cells with CD32a from other T cells in the blood samples, and found that the cells with this particular protein indeed had latent HIV harboured inside them.
Unfortunately, it’s not a smoking gun in every case, since the protein was found only on about half of all latently infected T cells.
Douglas Richman from University of California San Diego, who wasn’t involved in the research, writes that
“the eradication of latent HIV would require a much greater reduction in the number of latently infected cells in the body.”
But it’s an extremely encouraging first step in the long search for a marker that could help us track down the nasty virus once it goes into hiding.
Tony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, told Nature that a good next step would be to replicate the findings in more blood samples from a larger variety of patients who have the virus.
It’s still way too soon to say that we’re on the path to an actual HIV cure, but the news is super-exciting to researchers who have been hammering away at this problem for decades.
“I really hope this is correct,” says Fauci. “The fact that this work has been done by such competent investigators, and the data looks good, makes me optimistic.”
In a world where HIV continues to be a major health issue, this discovery indeed gives cause for optimism.
About 36.7 million people around the world live with HIV, but only 17 million have access to antiretroviral therapy, according to data from the US CDC.
The scientists have already filed a patent for the diagnostic and therapeutic use of the new biomarker.