The Queensland Institute of Medical Research believes it may be developed into the closest thing modern medicine will get to a cure.
“This has the possibility – not to eliminate the virus – but hopefully to allow us to reconstitute a human immune system that is resistant to HIV,” Associate Professor David Harrich said.
He said they experimented on a normal protein usually used by the HIV virus to replicate itself in human cells and mutated it to create the “Nullbasic” protein.
“We now have a very potent protein that can stop HIV from growing in cells,” he said.
“Instead of being an activator of HIV, it’s an inhibitor of HIV.”
Associate Professor Harrich runs the only research lab in Queensland working on Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and hopes to proceed to animal trials later this year.
“The reason we got so encouraged was because of just how well this protein worked in the cell culture, so we’re fairly convinced the animal model study will be successful,” he said.
With animal then human trials predicted to take five to 10 years, Associate Professor Harrich said the ultimate goal would be to develop a gene therapy treatment – similar to therapies provided to people with cancer – that would replace current regimes of antiretroviral drugs.
“With a single therapy that you would have long-lasting protection from the virus and could lead a drug-free life,” he said.
For Associate Professor Harrich, the result comes after more than 20 years of working on the virus, including in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when he was resident at the University of California, which was heavily involved in its identification and early treatment.
“So this whole project that I’m working on right now actually started in that same lab in UCLA,’’ he said.
The findings have been published in the journal Human Gene Therapy.
He said as exciting as this development was, it was no reason to ease up on public health such as practising safe sex and not sharing needles.
“Prevention is still the best cure,” he said.
“Where we come in is when it’s too late.”
Around the world, researchers are working on several approaches to improve the treatment of HIV and a global strategy to find a cure was unveiled in Washington last year.
The Alfred hospital’s Infectious Diseases Unit director, Professor Sharon Lewin, is pioneering one approach.
Professor Lewin, who is also co-head of virology at Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, is testing the ability of an existing drug to ‘‘wake up’’ the virus in cells where it hides and lies dormant. The theory is the reawakened virus would kill the cell it inhabits, thereby self-destructing.
Another potential cure under investigation internationally involves boosting the immune system to mimic a group of HIV patients who can control the virus naturally.
This group of patients, known as ‘‘elite controllers’’, have low levels of the virus which don’t require drug treatment.
– with AAP