Preliminary research published this week in The Lancet medical journal outlines how scientists used an anti-convulsant drug to awaken dormant HIV hiding in the body, temporarily invisible but dangerous.
HIV infection is incurable because current drugs only work when the virus is multiplying. The virus only multiplies when it is in an active cell. However, HIV sometimes infects dormant cells, and when it does so it becomes dormant itself.
While the virus poses no threat in its resting state, the problem is that the sleeping cells sporadically wake up, reactivating the virus, causing it to multiply. Patients must continue to take the medications for life so that they can fight the virus coming out of the reawakened cells. Only if every last infected dormant cell is wiped out — or the virus purged from all of these cells — can patients be free of medication and be cured, experts say.
Figuring out how to clear this reservoir of latent infection, or whether that's even possible, is one of the hottest areas of AIDS research.
Over the last few years, a handful of other drugs have been shown to decrease the size of the dormant HIV pool, but they were subsequently abandoned as impractical because their effect was either too weak or the side effects too toxic.
The latest drug, valproic acid, shows more promise, said Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Gladstone Institute for Virology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco.
"It's a first baby step, showing that maybe the use of (this type of drug) — far more likely in combination with one or two other agents — might be a viable approach for tackling this latency problem," said Greene, who was not involved with the research but is conducting similar studies.
"The idea, if we could ever do it, is to purge every latently infected cell. Treat patients for probably two or three years, they'd be able to come off their antiretroviral therapy and they'd be virus free," he said.