amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Broad Benefits of AIDS Research: Potential Cures for Other Viral Infections?

by Jeffrey Laurence, M.D.

Through numerous cycles of grants and awards, as well as targeted, collaborative projects such as the ARCHE consortium, amfAR for many years has focused on research towards a cure for AIDS. As noted in previous updates, people with HIV who are successfully treated with antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) still have infected cells in which HIV remains silent, invulnerable to attack by the immune system or standard anti-HIV drugs, presenting a critical barrier to curing AIDS.

JeromeDr. Keith JeromeUnique strategies to destroy these viral reservoirs, through gene therapy, “shock and kill” approaches (awakening virus, then killing it with ARVs), and enhanced immune attack, are active areas of research. In the October issue of the Journal of Virology, Dr. Keith Jerome, a former amfAR grantee, discusses discusses a novel aspect of this work. Could strategies based on AIDS cure research—including the cure of the “Berlin patient” through a stem cell transplant—be used to cure other viral diseases that have similar latent reservoirs?

Working at the University of Washington, Seattle, Dr. Jerome and colleagues suggest that one might be able to target cells latently infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV) or herpes simplex virus (HSV) using proteins known as nucleases. One of these proteins can home in on specific DNA sequences of a virus and others can then cut them out.

Like HIV, HBV is of enormous public health importance. Despite having an effective vaccine, more than 350 million people are chronically infected with HBV—about 10 times the number chronically infected with HIV worldwide. In addition, HIV and HBV are transmitted by the same risk factors and large numbers of people are co-infected with both viruses. As these people age, the liver damage linked to HBV can become more injurious than HIV itself. Similarly, genital HSV/HIV co-infection is common, as HSV is a key risk factor for HIV acquisition and transmission, and an HSV vaccine does not exist. But just like HIV, existing drug treatments for HBV and HSV do not target latent viral stores.

Dr. Jerome discusses how genetic information coding for three types of DNA cleaving proteins—the zinc finger and the TAL (transcription activator-like) effector, as well as homing endo-nucleases—could be incorporated into harmless viruses that would target specific cells in the body infected with HIV, HBV, or HSV, and cut them out. He suggests that nanotechnology approaches might enable delivery of these proteins into hard-to-access places within the body, including the brain.

With further refinement of this technology, Dr. Jerome and associates believe that “the possibility of a viral cure exists.”  This is especially groundbreaking given that, to date, the only virus for which there is evidence that a true cure has been found is hepatitis C. Long a leader in funding trailblazing studies, amfAR proudly supports this research.

Dr. Laurence is amfAR’s senior scientific consultant.