A protein produced by immune cells could lead to more effective treatments for HIV, US researchers hope.
The virus can hide from attack
While powerful anti-HIV drugs exist, the virus has learned how to lie dormant in the body and escape their attack.
Now virologists at Thomas Jefferson University have found the protein called interleukin-7 can bring some strains of HIV back out of hiding.
Their findings appear in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Therapy with a similar interleukin (IL), IL-5, has already shown some promise in rendering HIV susceptible to attack.
Dr Roger Pomerantz and his colleagues at Jefferson's Center for Human Virology and Biodefence believe a cocktail of interleukins and anti-HIV drugs might be the best way to eradicate the virus.
They took blood from HIV-positive patients who had been taking a combination of anti-HIV drugs known as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).
All of the patients had undetectable levels of HIV.
The scientists then tested the effect of different drugs and proteins to see what would stimulate the latent virus the best.
IL-7 was the most effective, particularly with respect to specific strains of HIV that did not respond so well to IL-2.
Dr Pomerantz said: "We have tried to find an approach where we can stimulate HIV out of its latent state so it can be killed by antiviral drugs and the immune system.
"The only way we are going to cure this disease is by getting rid of the latent virus.
"It's a little bit like treating cancer. You give induction treatment to stop the viral load and then use this approach to get rid of the residual disease, much like chemotherapy."
He said that the interleukin treatment appeared to be safe and that, hopefully, his team would get approval to use it as a therapy in HIV patients within the next year or two.
But he said in order to eradicate all of the virus, it was likely that many drugs would need to be used in combination.
"We may have to combine IL-2 with IL-7 and other agents to get to the reservoirs of the virus," he said.