VirusScientists from KU Leuven, Belgium, have presented a new therapeutic approach that may make it possible for HIV patients to (temporarily) stop taking their medication.

The researchers have said that the findings shed a completely new light on the search for a cure for HIV. 

Existing antiviral inhibitors can suppress the replication of the HIV virus, but they cannot fully remove it from the human body. As a result, HIV patients have to take inhibitors for the rest of their lives. HIV researchers worldwide are currently developing new methods to eliminate the virus.

The HIV virus uses the cellular protein LEDGF as a ‘grappling-hook’ to attach itself to specific locations in genetic material. Once its DNA is inside the cells of its human host, the virus can multiply and make the patient sick.

In 2010, a research team at KU Leuven, led by Professor Zeger Debyser, developed inhibitors – called LEDGINs – that block the ‘grappling-hook’. As a result, the virus cannot attach itself to its preferred locations in our DNA.

Doctoral student Lenard Vranckx has now discovered that, when treated with LEDGINs, the HIV virus settles elsewhere in our DNA, in locations where it cannot multiply. Vranckx explains: “We’ve shown that a treatment with LEDGINs not only inhibits the integration of the HIV virus, but also ensures that the virus doesn’t multiply once the treatment is stopped.”

Professor Debyser added: “This discovery paves the way for new clinical studies with LEDGINs. We don’t know whether this approach will lead to a final cure for HIV, but even a scenario that allows patients to stop their medication for a while is an important step in the right direction.”

However, the researchers remain cautious: “We don’t want to give anyone false hope. Our discovery is based on cell cultures. The findings still need to be tested in mice and in clinical studies. That’s why a potential treatment based on the discovery is still years in the future,” said Professor Debyser. “But now, we already know the direction of our future research.”