Researchers discovered a way to “chase” the HIV virus and make it vulnerable

HIV infection is no longer a death sentence today - so far, however, the AIDS pathogen cannot be removed from the body of infected people, but only suppressed effectively. 

Researchers discovered a way to “chase” the HIV virus.

But now there is new hope in the development of a definitive cure: 

Researchers may have discovered a way to "chase" the virus out of its hiding places in the body and thus make it vulnerable.

The sufferers are emaciated: The immune deficiency disease AIDS spread like a nightmare in the 80s and 90s. But then modern medicine could finally end the mass death - the so-called antiretroviral therapy proved to be a great blessing for those infected with HIV: Daily medication suppresses the development of virus particles in the body and thereby protects against the onset of an immune deficiency. Those affected can lead a normal and healthy life through the treatment and do not pass the infection on sexually.

Unfortunately, despite the treatment, the infection remains chronic: therapy cannot completely drive the virus out of the body, because the pathogen still slumbers in some cells. When the patients stop taking the medication, the viruses spread again in the body. The health side effects of the therapy and its high price are also problematic. 

It is also becoming apparent that HIV infection is associated with health disadvantages even when suppressed. In short: The development of a definitive remedy is required. But that has proven to be a tricky challenge so far. Against this background, the current study gives new hope.

HIV is still in hiding

In order to understand what the researchers found, a look at the processes involved in HIV infection is helpful: When the virus gets into the body, it destroys exactly those cells of the immune system that the body would use to fight it: the CD4- T cells. The virus infiltrates its genetic material into these cells and forces them to produce further virus particles, which then travel to new victims. As a result, the body police are increasingly turned off, and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) develops. 

In the worst case, those affected have almost no T cells, and the body can no longer defend itself against uncomplicated infections. Fortunately, antiretroviral therapy can effectively prevent this: However, the virus returns when antiretroviral treatment is discontinued because HIV still slumbers in some infected T cells. 

Researchers are, therefore, currently pursuing the strategy of specifically "chasing away" the virus in these cells. "We need to activate the virus so that it can multiply as we administer drugs that protect other cells from infection. This makes the infected cell visible to the immune system and can be switched off," says co-author Hany Zakaria Meås from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim about the current approach to developing healing methods. So far, this strategy has also not been successful.

Potential for the "shock and kill approach."

As part of their study, the researchers turned their attention to some instances in which the virus fails to infect T cells in the body: The pathogen is enclosed in a so-called endosome and destroyed in this structure by the cell. 

The researchers have now uncovered what happens here through tests on cell cultures. As they found, there is a previously unknown immune response that can potentially be used specifically for the "shock and kill approach" in combating HIV.

Specifically, the researchers found that when HIV is destroyed in the endosome, genetic material from the pathogen is released, which leads to the activation of a specific molecule called TLR8. This, in turn, triggers the production of certain inflammatory substances in the cell that spread. These cytokines can then wake up the HI virus in other T cells in which it rests, the scientists explain. 

In other words, the TLR8 signal and the cytokine-induced reactions scare away the pathogen in the sleeping cells, which could make HIV vulnerable to the immune system or certain medications. The researchers were able to demonstrate this process on cells in which the virus lies dormant, which comes from HIV patients treated with antiretrovirals.

"The study has now provided potentially groundbreaking insights into the disorder of the HIV sleep state," says co-author Kristian Damås. "As an important receptor for HIV in T cells, TLR8 is now a potential new therapeutic target for the treatment of HIV," summarizes the scientist. It could, therefore, be an essential step towards the great goal of HIV research: to finally rid humanity of the insidious pathogen.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, article: Nature Communications. 

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