4th February 2011
Scientists may have found a way for the body to cure itself of HIV.
In a series of tantalising experiments, they were able to harness the immune system to such an extent that it defeated the virus and completely removed it from the body.
While there have been advances in treating the condition, the virus’s remarkable ability to outwit the immune system means that the recipe for a cure has so far eluded even the world’s best scientists.
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The latest experiments were carried out in mice but the researchers believe they raise the possibility of a cure, not only for HIV but for other long-term infections, including hepatitis B and C and tuberculosis.
A lot of the work into finding a cure for these illnesses has focussed on trying to use the immune system to gradually eliminate the virus or bacterium.
But the latest research, funded by the Australian and Canadian governments, suggests that a short, sharp shock is far more effective.
Dr Marc (CORR) Pellegrini, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute said: ‘Viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B and C overwhelm the immune system, leading to establishment of chronic infections that are lifelong and incurable.
‘Despite tremendous efforts, long-lived immune responses for some of these viruses are ineffective, because the body is so overrun by virus that the immune system just give up trying to battle the infection.
‘Some people have coined the phrase “immune exhaustion” to explain the phenomenon.
Breakthrough: the research centres on a gene called SOCS-3 which has a strong reaction to overwhelming infections (file photo)
‘Our approach is to discover some of the mechanisms that cause this immune exhaustion, and manipulate host genes to see if we can boost the natural immune response in order to beat infection.’
The breakthrough centres on a gene called SOCS-3.
When faced with an overwhelming infection such as HIV, the gene becomes highly active and slams the brakes on the immune response, allowing the virus to persist.
When the researchers boosted levels of a hormone called IL-7, the gene ‘switched off’ and mice were able to gradually remove HIV from their bodies, the journal Cell reports.
Dr Pellegrini said the research had provided ‘excellent ideas ‘for new therapies that could target and boost host immune cells called T cells to fight disease, rather than targeting the disease itself.
‘The findings could help to develop drugs that target some of these host molecules, such as SOCS-3, and turn them off for very short, defined periods of time to reinvigorate the T cells, allowing them to regroup to fight infection,’ he said.