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Queensland Institute of Medical Research Associate Professor David Harrich has determined how to modify a protein in the HIV virus, so that it instead provides strong, lasting protection from infection. A mutant Tat protein provides strong protection from HIV-1 infection in human CD4+ T cells is published in Human Gene Therapy.

“This is like fighting fire with fire,” Associate Professor Harrich said. “If this research continues down its strong path, and bear in mind there are a many hurdles to clear, we’re looking at a cure for AIDS.”

Associate Professor Harrich runs the only research laboratory and containment facilities in Queensland working with the HIV virus.

He invented the “Nullbasic” protein by mutating an existing HIV protein. It’s shown remarkable abilities to stop the virus replicating in a lab environment. Animal trials are due to start this year.

“I have never seen anything like it. The modified protein works every time,” Assoc Prof Harrich said.

“You would still be infected with HIV, it’s not a cure for the virus. But the virus would stay latent, it wouldn’t wake up, so it wouldn’t develop into AIDS. With a treatment like this, you would maintain a healthy immune system.”

The successful development of this type of one-off treatment would also have economic implications. HIV patients currently take a regime of drugs for the rest of their lives, which can be a significant financial burden.

Associate Professor Harrich has been researching HIV for thirty years, since starting as a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the early 1980s when the first cases of HIV/AIDS emerged.

“I’ve come close to giving up in the past. But today I’m so encouraged. I feel very fortunate because not a lot of scientists are able to stay in the same game long enough to see these sorts of developments. It involves perseverance, dedication and, of course, sustained research funding.

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