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Scientists find that protein switches off HIV in cells

A scientist from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has found that a protein he developed switches off HIV infection in cells, potentially paving the way for a cure for the deadly virus.

The head of the HIV Molecular Virology laboratory at QIMR Berghofer, Associate Professor David Harrich, made an antiviral protein – known as the “Nullbasic” protein – by mutating an existing HIV protein.

He and his colleagues have been conducting laboratory tests on the protein since 2009.

“In our latest experiments, we found that when you treat HIV-infected cells with this protein, the cells stop making virus particles. It’s as though the protein switches off the virus, which stops the virus from spreading to other cells” Associate Professor Harrich said.

“We already knew that the protein had a lot of promise in inhibiting the virus, but these results are more exciting than we expected. In our laboratory experiments, the protein didn’t just inhibit the virus’s ability to produce virus particles and spread to other cells, it shut it down completely.

“Importantly, this protein only seems to affect the HIV, and doesn’t harm any healthy parts of the cell.”

Associate Professor Harrich said that in future, the protein could potentially form the basis for a functional cure for HIV, which could be administered as a one-off treatment.

“What this means is that a person’s cells would still have HIV in them, but the virus wouldn’t have any effect. The virus would be essentially switched off and the cells would no longer make the virus,” Associate Professor Harrich said.

“This is different from currently available antiretroviral drugs, which stop the virus from spreading to other cells, but don’t stop individual cells from making the virus. This is why patients have to keep taking the drugs long term.

“The next step from here is to see if we can achieve a functional cure for HIV in mice.

“Obviously there is a lot more work to be done yet, and there are no guarantees that this protein will form the basis for a cure for HIV.”

But Associate Professor Harrich said the protein had other potential beyond a cure.

“What this protein has told us is that there is a way to turn off HIV,” he said.

“We don’t know at this point exactly how the protein switches off the virus. But this protein gives us a way of looking inside cells to find the mechanism for turning off HIV without doing any harm to the cell.

“In other words, we can get the protein to show us the off switch, then find other ways of flicking the switch.”

The World Health Organisation estimates that approximately 1.2 million people died from HIV-related causes in 2014 and that about 37 million people worldwide were living with HIV by the end of 2014. The WHO also estimates that by mid-2015, nearly 16 million people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral drugs.

The study has been published in the Journal mBio. It was funded by the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia.