AIDS cure may be more elusive than previously thought

by Craig Gustafson

A recent discovery by University researchers shows curing the AIDS virus might be more difficult than previously thought.
Researchers found the AIDS virus can reproduce itself in inactive cells that scientists previously thought were unaffected by AIDS. These infected cells cannot be treated with conventional drugs.
The findings might add to the explanation of why AIDS patients who fail to closely follow their strict medication schedules experience relapses.
In the early stages of HIV infection, the virus infects other cells that then pass it on to T cells.
Experts had assumed HIV could not reproduce itself inside inactive T cells, which fight infections in the immune system.
Zhi-Qiang Zhang, a research associate in the microbiology department, headed the research.
T cells are the predominant targets for HIV infection, Zhang said. “(The infection of T cells) leads to the destruction of the cell population and eventually AIDS.”
The virus uses T cells to spread itself to other cells in the body. The University study discovered the virus could still infect dormant T cells.
“The significance of the discovery is to help people understand why current (therapies) cannot cure the HIV-infected patients,” he said.
Monkeys infected with SIV, the simian equivalent of HIV, were used along with human tissue in the research.
Zhang also said the research should provide new insights into development of an effective AIDS vaccine. But most of the insight is that creating a vaccine will be difficult.
Ashley Haase, head of the University’s microbiology department, said inactive cells fly below the immune system’s radar screen.
Normally, anti-AIDS drugs interfere with the chain of new infections that maintain virus production. Dormant cells, however, cannot be targeted.
“We had hoped to cure people so we (could) throw those pills away,” Haase said. For now, “we can’t do that.”

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected].