Brisbane Scientist’s Breakthrough ‘Shuts Down HIV’


QIMR Berghofer Associate Professor David Harrich

A Brisbane scientist says he’s developed a protein that appears to “switch off” HIV in cells, potentially paving the way for a cure for the virus.

Associate Professor David Harrich (pictured) is the head of the HIV Molecular Virology lab at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Herston and he made the antiviral protein, known as the “Nullbasic” protein, by mutating an existing HIV protein.

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He and his colleagues have been conducting lab tests on it since 2009, and he said their recent results had been exciting.

“In our latest experiments, we found that when you treat HIV-infected cells with this protein, the cells stop making virus particles. It’s as though the protein switches off the virus, which stops the virus from spreading to other cells,” he said.

“The protein didn’t just inhibit the virus’s ability to produce virus particles and spread to other cells, it shut it down completely.

“Importantly, this protein only seems to affect the HIV, and doesn’t harm any healthy parts of the cell.”

Harrich said that while harnessing the protein would be difficult, in the future it could potentially form the basis for a HIV “cure”, which could be administered as a one-off treatment.

“What this means is that a person’s cells would still have HIV in them, but the virus wouldn’t have any effect. The virus would be essentially switched off and the cells would no longer make the virus,” he said.

This would be different from the currently available antiretroviral drugs, he said, which patients have to keep taking because they stop the virus from spreading to other cells but don’t stop individual cells from making the virus.

“The next step from here is to see if we can achieve a functional cure for HIV in mice,” he said.

“Obviously there is a lot more work to be done yet, and there are no guarantees that this protein will form the basis for a cure for HIV.”

But Harrich said that the discovery has potential beyond a cure.

“What this protein has told us is that there is a way to turn off HIV,” he said.

“We don’t know at this point exactly how the protein switches off the virus. But this protein gives us a way of looking inside cells to find the mechanism for turning off HIV without doing any harm to the cell.

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“In other words, we can get the protein to show us the off switch, then find other ways of flicking the switch.”

The study has recently been published in the American Society for Microbiology journal mBio.

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) recently declared the war against AIDS in Australian was officially over, but HIV remains an ongoing battle.

Next week, the 21st International AIDS Conference will be held in South Africa, attracting more than 18,000 delegates from around the world.