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Researchers develop new, more effective method for detection of HIV virus genomes

Published on 08/02/19 at 12:03pm

A team of researchers have devised a new way to accurately detect residual HIV in the body’s immune cells, allowing for better evaluation of the efficacy of potential therapies in eliminating the active form of the virus.

Katherine Bruner, Biology Assistant Professor at the University of Texas and leading author of the new study explained the benefits of the method: “What’s neat is you could get a blood sample from someone, and by the end of the day or the next day, you could tell how many (virus) genomes in that person’s cells actually have the ability to replicate.”

“The problem is if people come off their medicines, within two weeks the virus will come back and they will start getting sick again,” she continued.

Current treatments suppress the virus’ ability replicate, but this presents an issue for patient adherence: “We are looking at HIV cures to get it to where people can come off of their meds and not have to take a pill every day for the rest of their life,” Bruner added.  

HIV is able to hide within the body’s immune cells and only becomes active once it is triggered by an immune system response to another, unrelated threat. This means that for any prospective HIV therapy to be effective, it needs to be tested with robust methods for detecting and measuring the virus. Our previous methods have measured both the active forms and those forms rendered ineffective by the immune system, meaning HIV-infected cell levels in the body are often overestimated as a result, leading to difficulties in accurately determining a treatment’s effectiveness.

“The study of HIV persistence is very challenging,” explained Francesco Simonetti, a doctor at John Hopkins School and co-author of the study. “During effective treatment, only about one out of 1,000 (immune cells) is infected and, from the outside, it is currently impossible to distinguish infected cells from their uninfected counterpart.”

Instead, the team’s new methodology only measures the HIV virus genomes that will pose a threat once activated, ignoring the ineffective forms.

This research presents an important step forward in the treatment of HIV, but biochemistry professor Kenneth Johnson warned against the building optimism of some for a cure for the disease: “There is a lot of misunderstanding because of the successes of the drugs in the past 10 years. There is the attitude that we can cure HIV. No, we can’t cure HIV. It’s something you live with for the rest of your life. Taking these drugs is no picnic because there are toxic side effects of the drugs.”

Matt Fellows

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