Researchers Take on the Biggest Challenge to Finding a Cure for HIV

The scientific community has identified one main thing standing in the way of finding an actual effective HIV cure. Luckily, Cornell researchers have secured an impressive grant of 3.4 million US dollars to study that phenomenon and potentially overcome the one issue that’s now keeping us from making HIV infections easy to eliminate.

Complex Cellular Responses Limit the Potential for HIV Cure Discovery

It’s a well-known fact that the human immunodeficiency virus replicates by affecting immune cells. Because of that phenomenon, it can affect the body’s ability to ward off infections and it can eventually lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Current research focuses on CD4 T cells – the ones that are directly impacted by the virus upon its entry into the body.

But there are other kinds of cells that could also be impacted and this mechanism is the one that makes HIV infections incurable at the time being.

When infected, CD4 T lymphocytes experience cellular death. Antiretroviral medications suppress the infection by limiting the ability of the virus to replicate. As a result, the CD4 T count goes up and the immune response is restored (undetectable status).

Other kinds of cells, however, could also be infected by the virus. Macrophages are one example of such a cell and they are not being targeted by antiretroviral therapies. As a result, concealed HIV reservoirs remain inside the body.

The one thing that is very interesting to point out is that macrophages are not driven to cellular death when they become infected. Instead, they turn into reservoirs of a latent HIV infection that could become reactivated whenever a person goes off their antiretroviral treatment. This is one of the biggest reasons why HIV is a lifelong condition.


The Aim of New Research and Hope for Finding a Cure for HIV?

Cornell researchers aim to examine host cell regulatory pathways that could impact the availability of HIV reservoirs and get rid of them altogether.

Currently, there’s a library of 735 epigenetic inhibitors known to the medical and scientific communities. Of those, 70 have undergone FDA regulation and approval. These will be examined for their ability to cause cellular death in the macrophages that have become HIV-infected.

Whenever such a mechanism gets identified, it can be used alongside antiretroviral medications to prevent a new infection and eliminate the virus from the body altogether.

Previous research suggests that pro-survival pathways in macrophages get activated whenever they become infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. Researchers are going to study this process and pinpoint ways in which such a response could be altered.

Macrophages are key players in the immune system’s response to threats. They have the ability to “migrate” from one part of the body to another whenever a pathogen needs to be targeted. Apart from having this ability, macrophages are also fairly long-lived in comparison to other immune cells.

Because of these two properties, macrophages (alongside cells like monocytes) have been identified as key players in the formation of stable yet concealed HIV reservoirs.

Blood samples from people undergoing HIV treatment have uncovered the presence of infected macrophages and monocytes in various parts of the body, including the lungs.

This finding is very important as a third of the deaths in HIV-positive individuals have been caused by a co-infection with tuberculosis (TB). In Malawi, for example, approximately 80 percent of the people who acquire TB are also HIV-positive.

Scientists are hopeful that the new study and its findings will move the discovery of an HIV cure further along. Through the discovery of the right biomarker, HIV-harboring cells will be “labeled” and later on subjected to destruction that will get rid of the latent reservoirs altogether.

HIV: A Manageable Condition That Affects Millions

A lot of progress has been made over the past few decades when it comes to managing HIV infections.

Antiretroviral medications have increased the lifespan of HIV-positive individuals significantly. There have been additional key advances like the development of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

But while it has become a manageable condition, HIV still affects millions of people. Some parts of the world are disproportionately affected by the infection because local communities often have limited access to testing, prevention and prophylactic solutions.

According to UNAIDS, 38.4 million people across the globe live with HIV. In 2021 alone, 1.5 million people become newly infected. Over the course of the same year, 650,000 people lost their lives to AIDS-related illness and opportunistic infections.

Of all infected individuals, 28.7 million had access to antiretroviral therapy in 2021. Eighty-five per cent of the HIV-positive people knew their status, meaning that about 5.9 million people didn’t know they were infected.

New infections have been reduced by the impressive 54 per cent since the peak of the HIV epidemic in 1996.Unfortunately, the condition is beginning to affect individuals outside of commonly pinpointed high-risk groups. Of all new infections that occurred in 2021, 49 per cent affected women and girls.

If you are worried about your status, get tested now. HIV can be managed and the earlier you find out, the better the options ahead of you. At Shim Clinic, you can get consultation, testing and medical guidance in confidential settings. Contact us now or visit the clinic during working hours every day of the week.