For people living with HIV, the widespread antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help slow the spread of the disease and prevent it from developing into AIDS. However, ART is not effective against all strains of the disease, nor is it a cure for the virus, which still affects 37 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization.
Several Israeli universities and scientific institutes have recently made strides towards new, more effective treatments and a possible cure for HIV/AIDS. In recognition of World AIDS Day 2015, NoCamels spotlights some of their most groundbreaking research.
Hebrew University: Destroying HIV-positive cells
Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have developed a new method to destroy HIV-positive cells without damaging the healthy ones. When the HIV virus attacks, it inserts a portion of its DNA into the genome of the healthy cell through an enzyme called integrase. However, research led by Prof. Abraham Loyter and Prof. Assaf Friedler has discovered that certain peptides (amino acids) can interfere in this DNA-transfer process, and ultimately cause the infected cell to self-destroy.
The procedure was tested on cultures of human cells infected with HIV-1, the most common form of the virus, and within two weeks, those cells were destroyed. The study is still in progress; the researchers have signed a partnership with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, as well as with the Hebrew University’s technology transfer company, Yissum, in order to find investors and continue with clinical trials.
Weizmann Institute of Science: Antibodies could neutralize the virus
At the Weizmann Institute of Science, research led by Dr. Ron Diskin has shown that rare antibodies may be able to neutralize the virus. Antibodies are proteins produced by blood plasma cells that help the immune system to identify and neutralize pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.
Only 10-20 percent of people naturally produce HIV-fighting antibodies, with which Diskin is experimenting. If such antibodies could be reproduced, they could one day be used both in treatment (thereby replacing conventional ART) and in a potential vaccine. “Antibody-based treatments for other diseases, primarily cancer, are already in use,” Diskin said in a statement.
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Although it is still unclear how effective HIV antibodies are on a wider population, the path of investigation seems promising.
Technion: Predicting the virus’ hidden paths
Looking for a new strategy to fight the virus, Assistant Prof. Akram Alian of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology chose to focus on how the virus enters the host cell. Normally, HIV targets healthy cells through favored pathways, but when ART blocks these entry points, the virus will look for alternative ways to access the cell, which could lead to “a new kind of viral resistance,” Alian hypotheses.
Alian and his team are “trying to map the HIV-1 rerouting landscape and capture different host virus complexes to see if we can target inescapable pathway nodes,” he recently told NoCamels. “If we can do this, then we can predict the hidden, alternative routes that the virus takes and from there develop a drug that targets the critical nodes of the host cell’s proteins, so there is no way for the virus to reroute and take a different pathway.”
Ben Gurion University: Blocking HIV’s ability to reproduce
Prof. Ran Taube of Ben Gurion University has been investigating the instances in which HIV remains ‘latent’ in the body even after the patient has undergone treatment.
ART cannot treat the virus itself; rather, it prevents HIV from making copies of itself (a process called transcribing) and spreading to other healthy cells. However, if transcription inhibitors block the virus’ ability to reproduce, as Taube’s research shows, ART will not be effective. Thus, fully understanding the mechanism by which HIV latency occurs may enable researchers to develop more comprehensive therapies that could ultimately treat the virus itself.
Considering HIV/AIDS was unknown to scientists 34 years ago, research into the field has made tremendous progress and enabled people with the disease to live decades with a relatively high quality of life. If researchers can make similar progress in the next 34 years, the disease may be curable and possibly eradicated.