German scientists make HIV breakthrough

Celine Casey July 3, 2007
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In a remarkable discovery in the hunt for a cure for HIV, scientists in Germany may finally have found a way to remove HIV from infected cells, a study released today revealed.

According to Science magazine, researchers working on the deadly virus have engineered an enzyme that attacks the HIV virus and cuts it out of the infected cell.

Although the enzyme TRE is far from ready, it offers hope for the more than 40 million people around the world who are HIV+

“A customised enzyme that effectively excises integrated HIV-1 from infected cells in vitro might one day help to eradicate [the] virus from AIDS patients,” Alan Engelman of Harvard Medical School affiliate Dana-Farber Cancer Institute wrote in an article accompanying the study, according to the AP.

Drugs are currently used to suppress the virus and can even take it to a level where it is undetectable, but have so far failed to completely eliminate the virus from the body.

What makes HIV so lethal is the way it inserts itself into the body’s cells, therefore forcing those cells to produce new infection.

“Consequently the virus becomes inextricably linked to the host, making it virtually impossible to ‘cure’ AIDS patients of their HIV-1 infection,” Mr Engelman explained.

According to researchers, the virus will be removed from the genome of infected cells by this new enzyme TRE, by recognising and then recombining the structure of the virus’s DNA.

With the virus’ ability to remain undetected for not only months but years by reverting to a resting state in infected cells, this could remove a major block allowing the enzyme to recognise HIV’s DNA.

“The most important, and likely most difficult, among these is that the enzyme would need efficient and safe means of delivery and would have to be able to function without adverse side effects,” wrote the study’s lead author, Indrani Sarkar of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.

Significant barriers still remain, before TRE could be used to cure patients, Sarkar concluded.

“Nevertheless, the results we present offer an early proof of principal for this type of approach, which we speculate might form a useful basis for the development of future HIV therapies.”

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