HIV cure on the horizon? Blood cancer drug could hold the key

MELBOURNE, Australia — A blood cancer drug could potentially be the key to curing HIV. Australian researchers found that the cancer drug venetoclax can not only attack hibernating HIV cells but also delay the virus’s resurgence.

Currently, the “silent” HIV cells, medically referred to as latent infection, are the reason HIV remains in a patient’s system and necessitates life-long treatment. While existing treatments can suppress the virus, they cannot effectively target these dormant cells. That’s where venetoclax can play an important role.

“In attacking dormant HIV cells and delaying viral rebound, venetoclax has shown promise beyond that of currently approved treatments,” says Dr. Philip Arandjelovic, the study’s co-first author from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, in a media release. “Every achievement in delaying this virus from returning brings us closer to preventing the disease from reemerging in people living with HIV. Our findings are hopefully a step towards this goal.”

The research underscores the significant global impact of such findings, considering the 39 million people worldwide diagnosed with HIV. While 98 percent of Australians with HIV show undetectable levels due to their ongoing Antiretroviral therapy (ART), stopping the medication leads to a swift reactivation of dormant HIV cells.

Picture of blood vials taken for HIV test
(Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on pexels)

“This indicates that venetoclax is selectively killing the infected cells, which rely on key proteins to survive. Venetoclax has the ability to antagonize one of the key survival proteins,” says Dr. Youry Kim, the study’s co-first author from the University of Melbourne and a postdoctoral researcher at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

The researchers now plan to move this discovery to clinical trials. The trials, starting in Denmark by year-end, aim to assess venetoclax’s safety and effectiveness in HIV patients on suppressive ART. By 2024, they plan to extend these trials to Melbourne.

“It’s exciting to see venetoclax, which has already helped thousands of blood cancer patients, now being repurposed as a treatment that could also help change the lives of people living with HIV and put an end to the requirement for life-long medication,” says Sharon Lewin, laureate professor at the University of Melbourne.

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine.

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