In Depth

How cancer drugs are being used to kill HIV

Researchers say treatment may be able to flush virus from hiding places in the body

Scientists have developed a way to combat HIV's survival mechanism, flushing the virus out of its hiding places and killing it in the bloodstream.

The treatment uses a "highly potent" cancer drug to target dormant reservoirs of HIV in the body. Experts describe the new approach as "interesting" but said testing is necessary to determine whether the drug is safe.

What is the treatment and how does it work?

Researchers at the UC Davis School of Medicine in California are investigating a skin cancer drug known as PEP005 to study its effects on HIV.

Anti-retroviral therapy, the "cornerstone" of cancer treatment, aims to kill HIV in the bloodstream but "leaves 'HIV reservoirs' untouched", the BBC reports.

Researchers believe that PEP005 may be able to "kick and kill" these reservoirs of hidden HIV, reactivating them so they can be destroyed.

How effective is it?

According to the report, "PEP005 is highly potent in reactivating latent HIV". The chemical is one of a number of "lead compounds for combating HIV".

"We are excited to have identified an outstanding candidate for HIV reactivation and eradication that is already approved and is being used in patients," said the chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, Satya Dandekar, who led the study. "This molecule has great potential to advance into translational and clinical studies."

What are the downsides?

While the UC Davis School of Medicine's early results appear promising, the "kick" part of the treatment will only be effective if it can be followed up with a "kill", Medical Xpress reports.

"First, we need to identify the best combination of latency-activating agents," said Dandekar. "Then we must help patients clear these reactivated cells. Just reactivating the HIV from latency won't be enough."

What next?

Experts say the next step will be to work out whether the drug is safe for patients.

Professor Sharon Lewin, from the University of Melbourne, said the results marked an "important advance in finding new compounds that can activate latent HIV".

She told the BBC: "This study adds another family of drugs to test to potentially eliminate long-lived forms of HIV, although much more work needs to be done to see if this works in patients."

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