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3 Recent HIV Breakthroughs Could Change Things Forever

You might not know it, but there have been a number of recent breakthroughs in HIV testing and treatment. Researchers in the UK, Switzerland, and Australia have all come up with recent discoveries that could change the way we look at HIV/AIDS. That’s great news.

If you read daily newspapers, you may feel like the only headlines about HIV/AIDS are crappy stories about guys getting felony convictions for having sex without disclosing their status. It just happened in Ohio and Missouri; someone in South Carolina was recently arrested, too. Over in the UK, tabloids are having a field day with the case of Simon James, whom they describe as “a vile man” whose female partners now “fear that HIV is ‘at work on them’ every time they get a cold or feel unwell.”

But while those stories are horrendous (every last one of them), here are three positive news items to counteract them.

A faster, cheaper method of HIV detection

This crazy floral-looking pattern is actually Ebola (image via ETH Zürich)
This crazy floral-looking pattern is actually Ebola seen through birefringence. (image via ETH Zürich)

A team of Swiss researchers led by Raffaele Mezzenga have come up with a new method to detect HIV, not to mention malaria and Ebola. The technique is called Birefringence (pronounced beer-friend-gents), which researchers describe as “the ability of substances to change the polarisation state of light.” Here’s how it works:

A drop of blood gets placed on a special chemically-treated slide. Then the slide is placed on a device that uses an inexpensive filter to emit polarized light. A second filter which blocks light from all materials except crystalline or materials with “directional properties” (certain molecular arrangements), gets placed on top.

If light is visible, it denotes a positive diagnosis. A simple light meter plugged into a smartphone can measure the intensity of the light and thus the amount of the pathogen. This would allow doctors to detect diseases like HIV rapidly, reliably and far more affordably than other conventional testing methods. The polarizing filter only costs about twenty dollars and can work with multiple tests.

This all sounds simple, but the underlying science is pretty complicated, dealing as it does with nanotubes and isotropic liquid crystal cubic phases. Click here for a fuller, nerdier explanation.

It’ll be some time before the birefringence method will be publicly available. “Our technology is very suitable for use in the field and the early detection of diseases,” says researcher Vollooran. “Pathogens such as HIV or even Ebola can be detected very rapidly, and a reliable result received within less than an hour.”

A drug to better eradicate infected cells

A drug used to treat alcoholism might actually lead to a cure for HIV/AIDS. Australian researchers believe that the drug disulfiram could solve problems with dormant cells, according to a paper published in The Lancet HIV.

Thirty HIV-positive research participants were given disulfaram over a three-day period, and on the third day there was evidence that dormant HIV was reactivated with no adverse effects. Basically, disulfaram “wakes up” dormant HIV cells hiding in the bloodstream so that other medicines can eradicate them, but scientists have yet to find the right combination of drugs to achieve this.

Lead researcher Sharon Lewin — who conducted the trials in Australia with the help of American researchers from University of California San Francisco, Johns Hopkins University and Frederick National Laboratory in the USA — says that until now, only highly toxic drugs seemed to work to “wake up” cells. Lewin describes disulfaram as “more of a tickle than a kick to the virus,” adding that this is very encouraging.

Disulfaram can be taken orally once a day with minimal impact on patients.

 

A prototype HIV vaccine?

Chimp adenovirus vaccine vectors were engineered to express the artificial HIV protein, GPN.
Chimp adenovirus vaccine vectors were engineered to express the artificial HIV protein, GPN. (via Royal Holloway

In the UK, research teams led by George Dickson and Jonathon Weber have developed a prototype HIV vaccine vector (that is, “a vaccine that uses a chemically weakened virus to transport pieces of the pathogen in order to stimulate an immune response.” Thanks Google!).

While scientists have been trying to develop an HIV vaccine for thirty years, they believe that this new vaccine can be taken as far as human trials!

The researchers used a similar approach to that used in Ebola and malaria vaccines, engineering two vector candidates based on Chimpanzee adenoviruses. Science Daily has some more detailed info.

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