BY: KATE SLOAN
After eluding medical researchers for decades, it’s possible a cure for HIV-AIDS is on the horizon. A recent study out of Northwestern University uncovered new information about the way the virus functions, and this revelation could pave the way for a functional cure in the future.
Once infected with the HIV-1 virus, a patient can reduce their body’s viral load to undetectable levels by continually taking medication. However, if treatment is discontinued, the virus bounces back and repopulates the body in short order. According to a Slate report, HIV researchers have long struggled with the question of where the virus hides when treatment has rendered it medically undetectable in the body. These hypothetical locations are known as “reservoirs” – types of cells in which the virus can invisibly survive at low levels, even during aggressive treatment.
The new study found that even in patients whose treatment has rendered the virus undetectable, HIV could continue to reproduce in lymphoid tissues. These tissues are found in the spleen, tonsils, appendix, and other components of the lymphatic system.
This is crucial information in the search for a cure. Permanently eradicating HIV from a patient’s body would require killing the virus in both the patient’s blood and any cellular reservoirs where the virus had taken hold, so it’s a windfall that scientists now know where at least some of those reservoirs are.
HIV researcher Deborah Persaud told the Washington Post it’s too soon to get excited about this news. She warned that the study used a small sample size – just three patients – and only tracked their health for six months, so its findings might not be as groundbreaking or as definitive as the HIV-AIDS community would hope. Persaud said a longer-term study with more participants would need to be done before the phenomenon of lymphoid tissues as viral reservoirs could be confirmed.
Nonetheless, the Northwestern researchers are confident about their discoveries. “We now have a path to a cure,” one of the study authors, Dr. Steven Wolinsky, told Slate. “The challenge is to deliver drugs at clinically effective concentrations to where the virus continues to replicate within the patient.” With scientific discoveries like these, and new technologies in development all the time, a cure for HIV seems closer than ever before.