Mutating HIV into Extinction: One Answer to the Dilemma of HIV

In the late 1990’s a group of scientists and researchers faced with the dilemma of HIV and its resistance to a cure, decided to try to force the virus to over-mutate. The idea was to cause HIV to mutate at a rate much greater than the average HIV cell normally does, thus making the cells weaker and more prone to being eradicated. Essentially, they were attempting to cure people by mutating HIV into extinction. Many thought this approach would ultimately prove fruitless, but they pressed on.

Fast forward to 2011 and we find that, indeed, the group has developed a drug that causes rapid mutation in HIV cells. In the lab the drug forced a mutation explosion such that the HIV cells could no longer produce enough protein to survive. This essentially ‘killed’ the virus (although, technically, viruses are not alive in the first place, which is one of the reasons they are so difficult to eliminate). In clinical trials, however, the mutation was not great enough to cause the test patients’ HIV cells to collapse.

In a new study, released in July in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers discovered how the drug – currently known as KP1212 – was able to cause the HIV cells to mutate beyond their normal rate. Armed with this new knowledge, they are confident that they will be able to strengthen the effects of the drug and eliminate the HIV cells on a permanent basis. If they are successful we are talking about an actual cure for HIV.

HIV cells normally mutate quite frequently due to the way HIV reproduces. HIV makes copies of its genetic material, which is very error-prone and unstable, in a rapid mutation that actually helps the virus cells evade elimination from both the body’s immune system and man-made drugs. If HIV can essentially be forced into overdrive (roughly double the normal mutation rate), it will cause weaknesses that will result in the immediate elimination of HIV. Or, at the very least, cause the virus to become highly susceptible to drug elimination. This kind of forced over-mutation can, and in some cases already does, work for other viruses. For example, this is how Ribavirin works in patients with the hepatitis C virus. Similarly, some of the drugs developed for certain strands of influenza work in the same way. All of this good news suggests that we could be on the road to mutating HIV into extinction.