UCLA-led team may have found way to kill HIV-infected cells

Blood test results in a lab.
Blood test results in a lab. Photo credit Getty Images

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — A UCLA-led team of researchers believe they may have found a way to kill HIV-infected cells inside infected individuals, opening a “new paradigm for a possible HIV cure in the future,” the study's lead author said Monday.

The breakthrough could potentially reduce, if not eliminate, the virus from the currently 38-million people around the world who have HIV, according to UCLA.

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Researchers developed a “kick and kill” strategy of using cells that are naturally produced in the immune system to kill infected cells hiding inside the body, which could potentially eradicate them, according to the study's lead author Dr. Joceyln Kim, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA .

“These findings show proof-of-concept for a therapeutic strategy to potentially eliminate HIV from the body, a task that had been nearly insurmountable for many years,” Kim said. “This study opens a new paradigm for a possible HIV cure in the future.”

By lying dormant in some cells, HIV can elude anti-retroviral medications. When a person who is infected with HIV stops treatment, the virus emerges and replicates in the body, which weakens the person's immune system and raises the chance of opportunistic infections or cancers, which can sicken or kill the person. Tens of millions of people have died from HIV-related
diseases in the decades since the virus was discovered.

The research team used a “kick and kill” method to coax the dormant virus to reveal itself in infected cells, which can then be targeted and killed.

In an earlier study — in which the team described how the cells could be pulled from their hiding places — the team used humanized mice infected with HIV and gave them anti-retroviral drugs and then administered a synthetic compound developed at Stanford University that activates the mice's dormant HIV.

In that study, up to 25% of the previously dormant cells died within 24 hours of activation. However, researchers concluded they needed a more effective way to kill the cells, so in this study they used the same synthetic compound to flush HIV infected cells out of hiding and then inject healthy natural killer cells into the mice's bloodstreams to kill the infected cells. The new method cleared HIV in 40% of the HIV-infected mice, and the researchers couldn't detect the virus in the mice's spleens, which suggests that cells harboring HIV were eliminated.

“We will also be moving this research toward pre-clinical studies in non-human primates with the ultimate goal of advancing implementing this research to use in humans,” Kim said.

The study received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences UCLA CTSI Grant, the UCLA Center for AIDS Research, the UCLA AIDS Institute and the McCarthy Family Foundation.

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