Under the Sea

Scientists look to the ocean for help in eradicating HIV

BY Michelle Garcia

September 07 2012 1:51 PM ET

While medication has been able to keep HIV at bay for many people, ridding the body of dormant virus, stored in so-called reservoirs, is still a challenge. However, a set of compounds known as “bryologs” (based on a substance derived from bryozoans, tiny marine organisms) may help flush out cellular reservoirs in which latent HIV hides.

Highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, can drastically reduce active HIV in a person’s body. But a missed dose of HAART medication can prompt the dormant HIV, hidden in reservoirs, to reactivate and attack the immune system.

“[Eliminating HIV is] really a two-target problem, and no one has successfully targeted the latent virus,” Stanford University professor Paul Wender says.

Scientists discovered a few years ago that a naturally occurring bryozoan substance, called bryostatin 1, could help reactivate latent HIV so it can be treated. The substance proved so rare that supply could not meet demand, and it caused numerous side effects. Wender and his team are now synthetically copying bryostatin, creating analogs, or “bryologs,” that are as effective as the original but can be produced in larger quantities and carry fewer side effects. Bryologs are still being tested in animals, but Wender says these tests may be the first step toward finding a therapy that could eradicate HIV from the body.

Meanwhile, scientists at Merck Research Laboratories, along with researchers from the several universities, have also been working on new ways to purge persistent infection of HIV from the body. Their study, in the July issue of Nature, offers early evidence that drugs known as HDAC inhibitors, which have been used to treat lymphoma, can dislodge reservoirs of hidden virus in patients receiving treatment for HIV.

“We believe that the disruption and clearance of these virus reservoirs is a critical first step to the daunting challenge of finding a cure for HIV/AIDS,” says Merck Research Laboratories vice president Daria Hazuda. “We are excited about this pioneering research and remain hopeful for its potential.”

Wender also says flushing these reservoirs is critical.

“I receive letters on a regular basis from people who are aware of our work—who are not, so far as I know, scientifically trained, but do have the disease,” Wender told Science Daily. “The enthusiasm they express is pretty remarkable. That’s the thing that keeps me up late and gets me up early.”

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