The National Association of People with HIV (NAPWA) has cautiously welcomed news Melbourne researchers have made a scientific breakthrough which could unlock the cure to HIV.

Scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Parkville announced last week they had successfully cleared a HIV-like infection from mice by boosting the animals’ immune responses with a synthetic hormone called interleukin-7 (IL-7).

The finding was published in medical journal Cell.

Lead researcher Dr Marc Pelligrini told the Star Observer although a HIV cure might still be more than 10 years away, the finding has great weight.

“I think this is the first real ray of light that gives us hope that [HIV] is curable,” Pelligrini said.

“We’ve shown for the first time that [IL-7] actually does clear a very chronic and overwhelming infection in mice, which we think is translatable to HIV, hep B, hep C and perhaps other infections.”

Pelligrini said the breakthrough finding relates to the use of the body’s immune system to fight back at viruses, rather than an antiretroviral drug approach to clearing the body of HIV infection.

“One of the problems with our current antiretroviral therapies is that there are obviously latent reservoirs of virus which hide away and aren’t really exposed to the antiretroviral,” he said.

“So whenever you stop the antiretrovirals the virus will immediately come back.”

Pelligrini said if future trials are successful it’s likely a person would only need to take short cycles of IL-7 treatment to enhance their immune response to eradicate the virus.

“As soon as the immune system has got the upper hand on the virus, then really it squashes it to the point where, even if the virus comes back in small doses from time to time, the immune system will just get rid of it.

“Much in the same way as some of the herpes viruses … there the virus will reactivate from time to time but the immune system will just get rid of it, so we would hope that maybe this would be able to effect a cure.”

Pelligrini said there is still a long way to go, however, he would expect pilot studies to start in Australia in the next 12 months.

“Obviously all these things are taken cautiously because they’re mouse models and things need to be translated,” he said.

“The one real promise is we know IL-7 can be used in humans, because there were preliminary studies to look at its ability to be used as a therapeutic.

“That’s probably why this particular discovery is most promising because it looks translatable in the near future rather than it being a drug that really needs to be tested for toxicity, specificity and all those things which take many, many years.”

NAPWA executive director Jo Watson told the Star Observer overall she is hopeful about the findings.

“It’s exciting in my opinion because it’s showing just how much we’re still learning and got to investigate about IL-7 and other strategies around building the immune system and the response,” she said.

“Their work has been focused on mice and it’ll be years before we see how that can be replicated — if at all — with humans, and the work itself was a virus like HIV, it wasn’t actually HIV.

“So you’ve got to be careful just how much of this is a working concept, a hypothesis, versus what we see in real data coming back … [but] it’s an important piece of basic science research.”

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