This cancer drug may be our best hope yet for eliminating HIV once and for all

HIV hides in nooks and crannies.
HIV hides in nooks and crannies.
Image: NIAID/Flickr CC-BY
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Your body is a reservoir for bacteria and viruses as much as it is a bag of your own cells. Some of these are disease-causing agents, lurking in waiting for an opportunity to attack. This is a huge problem for those with HIV, the virus that eventually leads to AIDS. Take the case of the Mississippi baby, who after treatment with powerful drugs was termed HIV-free—but was found to still have HIV reservoirs two years after treatment was stopped.

Now, Satya Dandekar at the University of California, Davis and her colleagues have found a cancer drug that can attack these dormant HIV reservoirs. To get rid of HIV reservoirs once and for all, you need a drug that could target the dormant viruses without alerting the body’s immune system. After screening many known drugs, Dandekar found the cancer drug, PEP005, was able to do just that.

PEP005 works by targeting proteins that are unique to dormant HIV. Dandekar calls the process “kick and kill,” and it is one the most promising developments towards eradication of the disease. They tested the drug on infected used lab cells, and fresh ones taken from 13 people with HIV, and found that it worked to get rid of the reservoirs.

If human trials show success, then PEP005 could make it to market sooner because it can skip certain regulatory hurdles as a result of having been through the screening process for cancer.

But PEP005 is not the most effective use of the drug. Another chemical, JQ1, when used in combination with PEP005, does the job much better. But such a combination of drugs will have to go through the proper regulatory procedures—and may take up to 10 years to be approved for human use.

Cropped and enhanced image was provided by NIAID on Flickr under CC-BY 2.0.