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HIV Hidden in Patients’ Cells Can Now Be Accurately Measured

HIV Hidden in Patients’ Cells Can Now Be Accurately Measured
This human T cell (blue) is under attack by HIV (yellow), the virus that causes AIDS. The virus specifically targets T cells, which play a critical role in the body's immune response against invaders like bacteria and viruses. Credit: Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

Until now, researchers haven't been able to accurately quantify a latent form of HIV that persists in patients' immune cells. This hampers doctors' ability to assess the effectiveness of a particular treatment and select better alternatives.

The new method was developed by a team from Johns Hopkins University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, including first author Katherine Bruner, now an assistant professor of instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. This new genetic technique is fast and 10 to 100 times more accurate than previous diagnostics.

An inactive form of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) embeds into the genomes of a patient's cells and can persist despite otherwise successful therapies – thwarting attempts to cure the infection. Using the new genetic technique developed by Bruner, HHMI Investigator Robert Siliciano, and colleagues, researchers will finally be able to measure just how much of this viral form is hiding in the body­ – a crucial part of evaluating the effectiveness of new treatments.

Previous tools overestimated the number of this HIV form by 10-to-100-fold, potentially obscuring meaningful declines produced by experimental therapies, according to the team's report today in the journal Nature.

"Up until now, it has been difficult to assess whether or not HIV cure interventions are truly eliminating the virus," Bruner said. "This new test will allow us to effectively monitor experiments in the lab as well as individuals in HIV clinical trials and inform us whether or not our interventions are actually working."

Current HIV therapy involves combinations of antiretroviral drugs, each of which inhibits a specific stage of the HIV lifecycle. When drugs that block two or more stages are given to a patient simultaneously, the virus cannot replicate, and its presence in the bloodstream drops below detection limits. This relieves patients' symptoms and keeps them healthy for decades. But the virus sticks around in the body, in a latent form that's challenging to detect, much less count; HIV's genetic instructions, or template, remain integrated within the genome of certain cells.

HIV exclusively infects immune cells called CD4 cells. A subset of these routinely become dormant and store a record of known infectious agents. Like vivid memories, these cells persist indefinitely. But their persistence comes with a downside: they can unwittingly safeguard the instructions for making HIV. Once the cells are "awakened," these viral templates snap back into action making viruses. So patients infected with HIV must remain on antiretroviral therapy forever ­­– unless scientists can figure out how to destroy this so-called "latent reservoir" of HIV.

The first step is figuring out how big each patient's latent reservoir is, so researchers can track their progress depleting it. But that's been a serious challenge, said Siliciano, an HIV researcher at The Johns Hopkins University. When he and his lab members first demonstrated the existence of the latent reservoir in 1995, they did so using a technique they developed called quantitative viral outgrowth assays (QVOAs). The method involves growing HIV-infected cells in the lab, which is difficult and takes weeks to complete.

To skirt those issues, most scientists use a simpler technique that relies on a genetic reaction called PCR to measure how much viral DNA is present in CD4 cells. The problem, said Siliciano, is that 98 percent of the HIV instruction books are so defective they're harmless, so the method overestimates the number that matters to patient health­­.

Siliciano's team instead designed a PCR reaction that can distinguish between defective and intact viral templates, using fluorescent probes in two different colors. The probes target areas prone to mutations that can cause defects, and a color read-out indicates whether the HIV instructions are defective or not.

That means that scientists can use the new technique to assess whether a given intervention – an experimental drug, or cocktail of drugs, for example – is affecting the pool of hidden HIV instructions that actually threaten patients' lives.

"What good is investing a lot of money into developing strategies to cure people of HIV if you don't have a good way to measure whether or not they are working?" Bruner said. "We really hope this research will help advance HIV cure research."

The post was adapted from a press release by Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
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Friday, 03 February 2023

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