A gold-based drug already used for treatment of rheumatoid
arthritis significantly reduced the reservoir of viral DNA and the population
of long-lived HIV-infected memory CD4+
cells in a study conducted in six monkeys, Italian and American researchers
report in the journal AIDS.
However the decrease in viral DNA was transient in animals
that received three-drug antiretroviral therapy, and was sustained only in
those that received an intensified antiretroviral regimen alongside the
gold-based drug auranofin.
Reduction of the number of cells containing integrated HIV
DNA is likely to be an essential step in achieving a functional cure for HIV
infection. A functional cure is usually defined as a reduction in the reservoir
of HIV-infected cells that allows HIV treatment to be stopped without viral
So far, no cure for HIV infection has been achieved except
in the most challenging circumstances.
However more researchers are becoming optimistic about the
prospects for a cure for HIV infection, and the International AIDS Society has
international working group to develop a Global Scientific Strategy that will
speed up research in this area.
The Italian study used a drug called auranofin, a gold-based
oral drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. One effect of this drug is to
decrease the pool of central memory T-lymphocytes without affecting the body’s
ability to generate new T-lymphocytes. It also shortens the lifespan of newly generated T-cells, limiting the replenishment of the reservoir.
Central memory CD4+ T-cells may live for many years. This
group of cells is infected by HIV, and forms a very long-lasting reservoir of
HIV in the body of every infected person.
As soon as
treatment is halted, the reservoir of HIV DNA integrated into these cells begins
to fuel viral replication once more, eventually resulting in a rebound of HIV
to pre-treatment levels. Previous attempts to cure HIV infection using intensive
antiretroviral therapy have always run up against this barrier.
A treatment which could remove these cells and limit the
production of new cells for a period, alongside antiretroviral therapy, might
have potential for achieving a functional cure.
Auranofin’s effect on the HIV reservoir was tested in six
macaques infected with SIV, a simian equivalent of HIV. The animals had been
treated with an antiretroviral regimen of tenofovir, FTC and raltegravir and
had had undetectable viral load for at least eight weeks.
They were treated with 1.5mg/kg twice daily for one week,
and received 2mg/kg per twice daily thereafter, along with antiretroviral
Auranofin treatment resulted in:
of the lifespan of the longest-lived CD4+ T-cells after one month,
and reduction in the size of this
effect on the size of the naïve T-cell population;
CD4+ T-cell counts
change in undetectable plasma viral load;
significant reduction in SIV DNA, to below the limits of detection for
four weeks in animals treated with three-drug ART, followed by a rebound,
but persistent undetectability to eleven weeks in animals that received an
ART regimen intensified with darunavir boosted with ritonavir.
Six animals treated with intensified ART also received two
three-day cycles of vorinostat at week 10. Vorinostat is an HDAC inhibitor, a
type of drug which can stimulate HIV or SIV replication from cells in which the
virus is lying dormant. No rebound in viral load occurred in these animals, but
in two control animals that did not receive auranofin, viral load rebounded
after one cycle, suggesting that in the intensively treated animals the viral
reservoir had been substantially depleted.
The researchers also tested what happened when all treatment
was removed. In control animals treated only with intensified ART virus levels
rebounded after an average of 1.5 weeks to pre-therapy levels. In comparison
animals treated with auranofin showed viral rebound to levels significantly
lower than before treatment in most cases, and this took 7-8 weeks.
One macaque still had very low viral load seven months after
the treatment was stopped, and a stable CD4 count. In other cases CD4 counts
declined very little after viral rebound.
The research was carried out by Dr Andrea Savarino and
colleagues at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome.
side effects of this approach in the presence of HIV are as yet largely
unexplored”, Dr. Savarino warned in a press release. “I strongly recommend that
people living with HIV/AIDS do not buy the drug from uncontrolled sources such
as e-Bay and start self-treatment outside highly medicalised settings.”
authors of the study have decided to wait a little before moving to clinical
trials. “We prefer not to involve people in a trial of the drug immediately”,
said Dr. Enrico Garaci, president of the Italian Institute of Health, and
co-author of the study, “that’s because in this phase the trial could only be a
proof-of-concept study, and we have already this proof in monkeys. We prefer to
put all our effort in the intensification of the attack on the virus reservoir
in monkeys by using a combined approach”. “This will also allow”, he adds, “a
more thorough evaluation of the safety of the approach”.