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Next step for proposed HIV gene therapy

Pre-clinical trials of a genetic treatment to permanently suppress HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) are about to begin at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, in Brisbane.

Associate Professor David Harrich said gene therapy could replace or diminish the need for the constant cocktail of drugs HIV patients currently need to stop HIV from crippling their immune system or developing into AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Associate Professor Harrich genetically modified an existing protein in the virus and found the changed molecules prevent HIV from infecting other cells.

His latest research has shown how the mutated protein Nullbasic works to stop HIV from spreading.

“Most drugs currently used for HIV patients target one particular aspect of the virus,” Associate Professor Harrich said.

“If you compare the virus to a car, current medications might target one motor part to stop the engine from working.

“Our latest testing of Nullbasic suggests it stops the viral machinery by dismantling the car.”

Professor Harrich has been researching HIV/AIDS since the first cases emerged in the 1980s, and runs the only research laboratory and containment facilities in Queensland working with the virus.

“The next step in this project will be to test the effectiveness and safety of Nullbasic in patient cells in the lab, and in small animals,” he said.

“In our research so far there is no sign that Nullbasic has any associated toxicity – so patients could have their virus permanently suppressed with little or no side-effects.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but as stem cell technologies advance Nullbasic could be a cost-effective, lasting protection treatment for patients living with HIV.”

Associate Professor Harrich’s research is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), and an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship.

His latest paper has been published in the Journal of Virology (JVI).