Scientists say they’ve discovered where in the body the HIV virus “hides” to dodge the immune system’s defences.
Researchers at Sydney’s Westmead Institute for Medical Research have reportedly discovered intact HIV residing in the body’s immune cells known as “effector memory T-cells” that are meant to attack infections, including HIV.
Associate Professor Sarah Palmer, deputy director of the Centre for Virus Research at the Institute, said the virus “integrates its DNA into the DNA of these cells and it sits there quietly avoiding detection by the immune system.”
“If a patient stops their therapy, it’s that virus that comes right back and within two weeks they can have a very high infection of HIV again,” she said.
As a result, HIV-positive people must take medication for the rest of their lives.
“This is a particular problem in the developing world where only 50 per cent of people have access to regular HIV therapies,” she said.
Scientists have previously struggled with the ability of the virus to rapidly mutate, but Professor Palmer said five per cent of the virus stays “genetically intact.”
It’s this proportion of the virus hides in the effector memory T-cells, stopping the immune system from eliminating the virus.
“Now that we’ve identified where [the virus] is hiding, we can start work towards targeting these cells with new therapies aimed at fully eliminating HIV from the body,” Professor Palmer said.
The research has been published in journal Cell Reports, and was funded by the US National Institutes of Health and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.
The discovery is one of several HIV breakthroughs in the last few months.
Last month, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Paris-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi announced they’d successfully prevented HIV infection in primates after arming them with a combination of naturally-occurring HIV antibodies.