Friday, February 20, 2015

From the Archives: HIV's Achilles Heel

HIV/AIDS Updates: Achilles Heel

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

AIDS is not an immediate death sentence anymore, but rather a manageable disease. In the same time, while the number of AIDS-related deaths is decreasing, HIV infections are on the rise—the most recent CDC statistics show that over 50,000 Americans become infected every year. While today’s HIV/AIDS patients and their physicians can choose from a variety of powerful medications to keep the disease in check, some AIDS experts believe that treatments do not pave the way to a world without AIDS; a cure does.

Horseback riding in Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.
The Road Ahead. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

While some may believe that an AIDS cure is still out of sight, a group of AIDS experts led by Doctor Sudhur Paul of the University of Texas Medical School of Houston announced that the possibility of discovering an AIDS cure might come sooner than envisioned. The statement is based on the discovery of the HIV’s weak spot, otherwise referred to as “HIV’s Achilles heel.” This discovery would lead to destroy, entirely, the virus in the human body.

From the early AZT mono-therapies to today’s HAART regimens, the medications have had the ability to keep the virus in check, but not to entirely destroy it. That is because HIV has the ability to constantly mutate and adapt to medications by changing its coating. HIV infects the human body by attaching itself to an immune system cell called the T-cell (or CD4 helper cell). Doctor Sudhir Paul and his colleague, Doctor Miguel Escobar, have discovered a section of HIV—a key protein the virus uses to attach itself to the T-cell—that does not mutate. HIV has to keep this key protein constant in order to attach itself to the immune system cells. 

Doctor Paul and his team discovered a way to attack this protein, using a catalytic antibody (antibody with enzymatic activity) called abzyme, which is created naturally by the body and found in people with lupus. When scientists applied abzyme to HIV, the virus was permanently destroyed. This makes the new way of fighting HIV drastically different from the ones known so far. Eventually, this novel procedure could destroy all the HIV in the human body and, in time, lead to an AIDS cure.

Until then there is much work still to be done. Doctor’s Paul procedure has worked so far in lab tests and animal trials. Next phase is human trials for which HIV patients may have to wait for five years. Usually, in creating a new medication or vaccine, problems start with the clinical trials, partly because clinical trials are very costly and partly because that’s where most vaccine trials have had problems in the past. 

Recently, several vaccine trials have failed while India has reported a successful completion of phase two of a potential AIDS vaccine. While Doctor Paul believes that an AIDS vaccine may be available some ten years from now, let’s not forget that it took scientists 42 years to develop a vaccine for whooping cough, 47 years for a polio vaccine and 105 years for a typhoid fever vaccine. How long would it really take to an AIDS cure?