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Persistent HIV Infection Works a Lot like Cancer, Study Shows

By November 22, 2018No Comments

Scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle have strengthened the case that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, may take a page from cancer’s playbook.

The research led by Drs. Joshua Schiffer and Dan Reeves has significant implications for strategies to cleanse remaining reservoirs of HIV infection, which, if ever achieved, would amount to a functional cure for HIV.

Their study, released online Friday in Nature Communications, lends strong support to one side of a debate about why HIV persists in patients who otherwise suppress the virus through lifelong treatment with antiviral drugs.

That debate centers on this: Does HIV survive in these patients through replication, in small pockets of infected cells that escape the drugs and continually copy the virus? Or is it through proliferation, the routine duplication of blood cells that have HIV genes from an earlier infection stitched into their own DNA? Proliferating cells harboring such genes can produce active infection if a patient stops taking the daily antiviral medications that keep HIV from spreading to healthy cells.

The Fred Hutch study points strongly in one direction: “We think that nearly all of these cells carrying HIV — greater than 99.9 percent — were generated via proliferation,” said Schiffer, a physician who also uses computers to model HIV-eradication strategies.

This is important news for researchers worldwide who are trying to figure out how to stop HIV for good.  Instead of trying to pick off hidden pockets of replicating virus, the study suggests it might be better to look for therapies that reduce cell proliferation, which is a standard strategy for blocking cancers.