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Melbourne researchers give HIV a wake up call

Burnet Institute

04 March, 2013

Professor Sharon Lewin in her lab with research assistant Ms Ajantha Solomon.

Melbourne researchers have moved a step closer to finding a cure for HIV by successfully luring the ‘sleeping’ virus out of infected cells.

Led by Burnet’s Co-head of the Centre for Virology, Professor Sharon Lewin the research shows the cancer drug vorinostat alters how HIV genes are turned on and off, essentially waking up virus that persists in patients on standard HIV treatment.

Professor Lewin said the results are promising and showed the virus can be woken up in nearly all patients who took the drug.

“We know that the virus can ‘hide’ in cells and remain out of reach from conventional HIV therapies and the immune system,” Professor Lewin said.

“Anti-HIV drugs are unable to eradicate the virus because it burrows deeply into the DNA of immune cells where it gets stuck and goes to sleep. Anti-HIV drugs are very effective in keeping people healthy but they can’t eliminate virus that is sleeping.”

Professor Lewin said this is an important step but the results have raised further questions.

“We’ve shown we can wake up the virus – now we need to work out how to get rid of the infected cell. A kick-start to the immune system might help. We have an enormous amount still to learn about how to ultimately eradicate this very smart virus,” she said.

Twenty HIV-positive patients in Victoria were the first in the world to participate in the two-week trial of vorinostat.

The research in collaboration with The Alfred, Monash University, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, is part of a global effort to find a cure for the virus and will be presented at the 20th Annual Conference on Retrovirus and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta this week.

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