Although we are very close to an HIV vaccine, people living with the virus still need a cure.
Part of the reason HIV is so difficult to cure is because it hides in a state of hibernation in long-lived immune cells and inserts its genetic material into the cell itself so it can successfully evade detection. This means that even when treatments are followed diligently, the virus is never completely eradicated but continues to be present in the patient within these latent reservoirs.
However, all of this could be ended with the use of a drug called pembrolizumab, according to a press release from the Doherty Institute. Pembrolizumab is an immunotherapy drug that is commonly used to treat melanoma and other cancers.
A small but important research group
A new small study (32 patients), but the powerful study has found that HIV latency could also be reversed, essentially eliminating the virus from its hiding place. Research on the drug, however, has been delayed because scientists can only test it on people suffering from both cancer & HIV.
“It is not easy to bring this approach to the clinic in people living with HIV without cancer,” said Professor Sharon Lewin – Director of the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity.
“The side effects of immunotherapy are currently significant, for example, 5-10 percent of people will receive an undesirable event. In a cancer situation this is not a big problem as you have a life threatening disease but in the case of HIV the situation is very different. People can now live normal & healthy lives with HIV, so any intervention to cure it must be done at a very low Toxicity.
“In this study, we were able to show that pembrolizumab could destroy the HIV reservoir in a cohort of 32 cancer patients who were also living with HIV, which is a very exciting finding involved many groups around the world.
Now Lewin & his team must determine if the drug can also boost the immune system enough to attack & destroy HIV. The team also needs to assess whether the drug can be used safely on people who don’t have cancer and only have HIV.
Lewin and his colleagues always have a long way before them, but the results of their work could potentially be revolutionary. Luckily, they’re not the only ones working on a cure for HIV. GlaxoSmithKline, a British multinational pharmaceutical giant, plans to start human trials for an HIV cure treatment as early as next summer.
The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.