Burnet researchers part of HIV cure effort

Tracy Parish

21 July, 2012

Burnet’s Professor Sharon Lewin spoke with AAP’s National Medical Writer, Michelle Henderson on the eve of the AIDS 2012 conference about an exciting trial in Melbourne involving 20 HIV-positive patients who are testing the ability of a drug to ‘wake up’ the virus in cells where is lies dormant and hidden from the effects of current antiretroviral drugs.

Here is an excerpt from the story which appeared in Australia’s daily newspapers and online sources.

Aussie research part of HIV cure effort

By Michelle Henderson, AAP National Medical Writer

Australian researchers hope a trial underway in Melbourne will reveal a way to stamp out HIV for good.

The research at The Alfred hospital, Monash University and Burnet Institute is part of a global effort to find a cure for the virus, which comes under the spotlight at the International AIDS Conference in Washington.

About 20 HIV-positive patients in Victoria will test the ability of a drug to ‘wake up’ the virus in cells where it hides and lies dormant, away from the reach of current anti-HIV drugs.

The theory, says The Alfred’s Infectious Diseases Unit Director Professor Sharon Lewin, is that the reawakened virus would kill the cell it inhabits, thereby self-destructing.

Professor Lewin, who is also co-head of Virology at Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, said the study’s results should be available later this year.

“We know from the first 10 patients that the treatment was safe and relatively well tolerated and didn’t cause any harm to people,” Professor Lewin told AAP.

“Now we are doing the more detailed studies to see whether we have woken up the virus.”

This particular approach to a cure, one of a handful worldwide, is based around the way the HIV virus behaves.

Anti-HIV drugs are unable to completely eradicate the virus because it burrows deeply into the DNA of immune cells, especially in the lymph nodes or gut, where it gets stuck and goes to sleep.

Professor Lewin’s team tested a treatment belonging to a group of drugs called histone deacetylase inhibitors. The drug, Vorinostat, is one of two in the group already licensed to treat cancer.

The theory worked in earlier laboratory tests but it remains to be seen if it works in HIV patients.

Unlike other more expensive approaches to a cure, Professor Lewin’s therapy involves simply taking a tablet, making it a potentially affordable option to target the disease where it hits hardest - in poorer countries.

Professor Lewin said the impetus to find a cure lay in the huge economic cost of keeping infected people on antiretroviral drugs for life.

“Antiretroviral drugs are very effective,” she said.

“They substantially reduce mortality and also make a person less infectious. But they cost a lot and treatment is currently lifelong.”

Although the cost of supplying antiretroviral drugs to the more than 34 million people living with HIV has decreased significantly, it is still overwhelming many organisations and public health systems.

The cost of funding the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been estimated at between $22 billion to $24 billion by 2015 and up to $35 billion per year by 2031.

Antiretroviral treatment is expected to account for up to 70 per cent of the total cost of care in the most affected countries.

Another potential cure under investigation involves boosting the immune system to mimic a group of HIV patients who can control the virus naturally.

This group of patients, known as “elite controllers”, have low levels of the virus which don’t require drug treatment.

“That’s made people think we could achieve something called a functional cure,” Professor Lewin says.


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Tracy Parish

Executive General Manager, Marketing and Communications




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