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By Lebo Nkatazo

AMERICAN researchers say they have found a novel technique that can DESTROY the HIV virus, and PREVENT infection.

“We’ve discovered the weak spot of HIV,” declared Dr Sudhir Paul of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston on Thursday.

The findings by Dr Paul and fellow researchers will be keenly followed by the estimated 24,5 million people infected with HIV & Aids in Sub-Saharan Africa.

At least 1,7 million of those people are in Zimbabwe where some 180,000 people die every year from HIV & Aids.

Current HIV drugs cannot destroy the virus because of its ability to mutate and adapt to drugs by changing its coating. Eventually the virus prevails and the infected person succumbs to the infection.

But Dr Paul believes they have cracked the “Achilles heel” of the HIV virus -- a small region where the virus cannot change its coating because it is the attachment point to T lymphocytes, the key cell in cell-mediated immunity. If that region is targeted, the virus can be destroyed.

The researchers have tested their findings by arming the immune system with their new weapon that lab tests and animal trials show WORKS.

"It is a long road; the virus has been around for almost 25 years, vaccine efforts have failed again and again, but we think we have a unique solution to the problem," said Dr Paul, a UT medical school pathology professor who has worked to find an effective combatant to the HIV virus for the past 19 years.

Martin Takawira, a Zimbabwean HIV and Aids specialist based in the United Kingdom last night hailed the research as “interesting progress”.

“This is clearly interesting progress in the treatment of HIV. Let’s not forget 95% of HIV positive people still don’t have access to HIV drugs. This is primarily due to cost and unfortunately most of these people are in the developing world. A cure for HIV has the advantage of being a one-off and cheaper treatment. If this works, it would be the single major breakthrough in the history of medicine,” Takawira said.

HIV patients around the world are put on a powerful drug cocktail that keeps the disease in check. But the virus mutates, and eventually learns how to outsmart the medications.

This new vaccine, researchers say, would be drastically different from current HIV treatments, which are used to block some parts of the virus' life cycle. Current treatments can have severe side effects, including toxicity, and 15 percent of patients are resistant to them.

“The virus is truly complex and has many tricks up its sleeve,” Dr Paul said.

Yet, he believes they may have cracked its code. He said he and his team have zeroed in on a section of a key protein in HIV’s structure that does not mutate.

“The virus needs at least one constant region, and that is the essence of calling it the Achilles heel,” he said.

They believe this weakness can be exploited with something called an abzyme —which is naturally produced by people, like lupus patients. When they applied that abzyme to the HIV virus, it permanently disarmed it.

“What we already have in our hand are the abzymes that we could be infusing into the human subjects with HIV infection, essentially to move the virus,” Dr Paul said.

They’re hoping that this basic idea could be used to control the disease for people who already have it and prevent infection for those at risk.

So far, their theory has held up in lab and animal testing with the next step being human trials. Critical funding must first be secured for human trials and in the world of HIV research, that’s often where things fall apart.

“Clinical trials are very expensive. That is the worry of the researcher. This is what nightmares are made of – that after 30 years of work, you find it doesn’t work,” Dr Paul said.

But, so far, it is working and researchers remain hopeful.

“This is the holy grail of HIV research, to develop a preventative vaccine,” Dr Paul said.

The researchers say if they can get the viral loads down to a manageable level, that will preclude the need for conventional HIV & Aids drugs.

Yet even with success, it’s at least five years before the research could help people with HIV, and doctors know millions of people are waiting.

“There are so many people struggling with the disease because it affects not only your body, but also your psyche, how you perceive yourself,” said Dr Miguel Escobar, a member of the research team.

Dr Paul said the United States government has been financially supporting the group of researchers for over a decade, but in order to move forward with the clinical trials, they will need the support of the private sector. He said when the researchers can get financial backing from a private company, development of the vaccine will follow.

"I am very optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the time I turn 65," said Paul, who is 55 years old.



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