A new study by the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) announced this week hopes to be a major development in the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS.

A QIMR scientist has developed a means by which gene therapy can be used to alter the HIV virus to defeat HIV in the laboratory.

“This is like fighting fire with fire,” QIMR’s Molecular Virology Laboratory scientist, Associate Professor David Harrich said.

The new technique involves modifying a protein found within the virus so that it instead of replicating itself, it prevents HIV progressing to AIDS. Whilst not a cure for HIV, the new development will essentially prevent the virus from causing AIDS and allow the body to handle the day-to-day infections that can severely affect HIV positive people.

“If this research continues down its strong path, and bear in mind there are a many hurdles to clear, we’re looking at a cure for AIDS.”

Running the state’s only HIV research laboratory and containment facilities, Harrich has spent a lot of time on his recent development. He singled out and modified a particular protein within the virus that he named the ‘Nullbasic’ protein. In lab experiments the mutated protein strain has shown remarkable abilities to stop the virus replicating itself.

Animal trials are due to start later this year.

“I have never seen anything like it. The modified protein works every time,” Harrich said.

“You would still be infected with HIV, it’s not a cure for the virus. But the virus would stay latent, it wouldn’t wake up, so it wouldn’t develop into AIDS. With a treatment like this, you would maintain a healthy immune system.”

Harrich is no stranger to HIV, having spent over 30 years researching the virus since starting out as a research assistant at the University of California in Los Angeles, when the first cases of HIV/AIDS started to emerge in the early 1980s.

However, experts are warning people not to become too complacent with the new development.

Executive Director for the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities, Paul Martin welcomed the news of a potential breakthrough but warned that the new development would be many years away from becoming a reality.

“While Healthy Communities welcomes any research that may one day result in a cure or better treatment for HIV, the research quoted in this article is far, far away from that.”

“In the early days of HIV, the hopes of many people living with HIV were raised by these stories, only to be dashed when nothing came of them. I think people these days are a bit more used to ‘AIDS cure’ stories that go nowhere.”

Harrich responded to concerns that his technique involving gene therapy was another HIV ‘breakthrough’ that would not be realised by claiming that his tests are approaching the virus’ DNA in a completely new way that has yielded positive results every time.

“What is different is the way the virus is inhibited. Nullbasic can decrease virus production by HIV infected cells by targeting gene expression”. Harrich told the Star Observer.

“It can also make virus made by cells less infectious…This is a pretty new approach. In studies with human cells, it has worked remarkably well in the lab.”

Harrich hoped that his technique would eventually prove itself and stand out from past ‘cures’.

One of the hurdles that needs to be overcome will be “if Nullbasic shows durable protection in a ‘humanised’ mouse model…This will be important.”

“If we can jump these hurdles then it has a chance to be the game changer. The mouse trials will begin this year and if successful the research community will take notice.”

Harrich has already received encouraging feedback from his peers who “are very good at criticism”. This new concept was pioneered by a mentor of Harrich’s whose work had great promise.

“It’s interesting to note that some of the very early clinical trials with anti-HIV gene therapy (using a Rev-based mutant protein), while not successful, showed some encouraging outcomes such as ‘protected’ cells outlived non-protected cells. Our results indicate that Nullbasic has much better antiviral properties.”

Martin said that he hoped the animal and eventual human trials, which still have many years to go, went well but for the time being tried and tested approaches are still the best line of defence against HIV.

“At present the best approach to HIV prevention is a combination of approaches – behaviour change, condoms, biomedical (e.g. PEP), testing, HIV treatment, social & legal reform.” Martin said.

“New ways of doing any of these types of prevention should continue to be trialled, including for example vaccines and microbicides, and if found effective made available.”

Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg echoed Martin’s caution that any new developments would still be a long time in coming but also welcomed the news.

“This government is a proud supporter of the QIMR where this project is being conducted,” Springborg told the Star Observer.

“It’s exciting that research being conducted in Brisbane may, in the future, have worldwide implications in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

The research is published in the journal Human Gene Therapy.

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