Researchers at the University of Michigan have been taking a new approach to the long unresolved challenge of developing a working cure for HIV/AIDS by looking at natural properties possessed by bacteria that live on coral, according to research released this week.

The bacteria — called marine actinomycetes — produce substances that inhibit a protein in HIV cells, enabling the bacteria to resist the human body’s immune system in a curative, rather than preventative, way. Unlike other research, which has attempted to target the HIV virus’s ability to infect cells, this approach seeks to develop a new type of drug that would target already infected cells, according to Kathleen Collins, lead researcher and University professor of immunology and microbiology, in an email interview.

Collins wrote in an email interview that many existing drugs are able to reduce levels of the virus present in the body, but fail to eradicate cells already infected in the system.

“None of the available drugs are effective at getting rid of the cells,” she wrote. “Our approach inhibits an HIV protein that makes the infected cells resistant to the immune system. We expect that our drug would help the immune system find and kill the infected cells.”

Collins, who has been researching HIV/AIDS for many years, wrote she screened these particular bacteria for about five years in collaboration with University microbiologist David Sherman and the Life Sciences Institute’s Center for Chemical Genomics.

After many years dedicated to the research of Nef — the protein responsible for concealing the virus — Collins wrote this the work looks promising, though she acknowledged there is still a lot of work to do.

“So far, the drugs look very potent and non-toxic in tissue culture cells – so they are as promising as they could be at this stage,” she wrote. “However, more work needs to be done to understand the full potential of our compounds.”

Epidemiology Prof. Powel Kazanjian, chief of the University’s division of infectious diseases, wrote in an email interview that Collins’ research — despite being in the developmental stage — holds some promise to address shortcomings of currently available drugs, namely their inability to fully eliminate the virus from the body.

“It is at a very early stage, but it has the potential to make an important impact,” he wrote. “Right now we have drugs that suppress viral replication and need to be given for a lifetime. A cure for HIV would avoid the lifelong use of drugs.”

According to a blog post published by the University of Michigan Health System’s Health Lab, Collins and her team began with 10 compounds and have been able to focus in on three that hold the greatest potential for inhibiting Nef.

Currently, the work is funded by the University’s medical research institute and the National Institutes of Health. Collins wrote that limited funding is one of the primary challenges facing the research’s ability to move forward quickly and eventually reach the stage of clinical testing in human patients.

“We have a limited amount of funds to try all the things that we would like to try to enhance production of the compound by the bacteria,” she wrote. “NIH funding is generally not adequate for developing drugs and drug companies often don’t become interested unless a lot of work has already been done to show the drug will be effective.”

Despite challenges of funding and understanding of the disease, Collins wrote she hopes to continue to research the mechanisms that viruses use to evade and resist the body’s immune system, not just in HIV/AIDS but other dangerous viruses as well.

“In 5-10 years, I expect that we will continue to be focused on what viruses do to resist immune detection and eradication so that we can refine our approaches to eliminate a wide variety of persistent viruses,” she wrote.

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