Computers Against HIV: A Striking Ally
Research into eliminating HIV and AIDS has always been a battle against time. Certain compounds that were once successful in destroying the virus cells, or in causing them to become sterile or inefficacious, are now worthless against the virus. This is a direct result of the ability of HIV to constantly mutate and adapt. Thus, new compounds are continually needed, and new methods of treatment are constantly sought after. One group of researchers, based at the University of Southern Denmark, are exploring methods that would accelerate the very process of finding new compounds that can be used against the HIV cells. What they’ve successfully done is to use computers to find potential compounds against HIV—at a rate magnified by several hundred percent! It might be said, then, that the use of computers against HIV has enlisted a formidable new ally in the war against HIV.
The problem is not the lack of compounds that have the potential to destroy or effectively stop the HIV cells. These days, scientists are able to reproduce almost anything imaginable in their laboratories. The problem is to effectively find and identify those compounds. By using computers based on quantum physics – which speed up processing times by several fold – the researchers at USD were able to pinpoint compounds that have varied effects on the HIV cells.
Many of these compounds do not kill the cells outright but, instead, stop HIV cells from being able to reproduce. ‘HIV is a retrovirus that contains enzymes which make it able to copy itself with the help of host genetic material and thus reproduce. If you can block these enzymes’ ability to replicate itself, the virus cannot reproduce.’ This is according to Vasanthanathan Poongavanam, a member of the research team at Southern Denmark. The group was able to identify 25 promising compounds. When the 25 compounds were then tested using the group’s advanced computer systems the field was narrowed to 14, which inhibited the virus’s ability to reproduce. ‘It took us only a few weeks to find these 14 very interesting compounds, whereas before it would have taken years.’ All of this illustrates that using computers against HIV has brought a daunting new player onto the field.
A recent study has revealed that HIV-1 hijacks 25 different proteins in the body in order to cover its replication and hide from the immune system. It is hoped that the results of this study will help in research for better treatment options and diagnostic tools.
When leaving an infected cell, HIV particles encase themselves in proteins to disguise themselves from the immune system. While it’s believed that some of these proteins are selected with a specific purpose, others may simply be random proteins that get caught up in the guise.
Drug companies would like to target HIV particles by using the specific proteins to find them – the problem is that the HIV particles utilize so many different specific proteins that it would be impossible to hunt them all individually. This research hopes to narrow down the number of targets by figuring out which proteins are most vital to the survival of HIV particles.
Researchers hope to examine proteins from the cells that HIV most likes to hide in, such as T-cells and macrophages, in order to discover the proper target proteins. While HIV uses hundreds of proteins to mask its spread, only 25 of these proteins are held in common by the two most frequently infected immune system cell types.
CD44 seems to be one of these key proteins – of the 25 examined it is the only protein that can bind other cells to itself. This allows the virus to latch onto inflamed areas within the body. Macrophages and T-cells (the cells that HIV is most likely to travel through) are both used by the immune system to deal with inflammation. Thus HIV uses the body’s own defense system to infiltrate deeper and spread more rapidly – immune cells carry HIV particles to inflamed areas, and proteins like CD44 disguise the virus and allow it to latch on to the inflamed cells.
Recent studies have shown that it is more difficult for a person with HIV to effectively read the emotional expressions of others than for those who do not. Those suffering recall loss found it difficult to discern fear on a person’s face, while those who were suffering from reduced neurocognitive performance found it difficult to discern whether or not a person was happy.
Many parts of the brain are involved in interpreting emotions via facial expression, for example the amygdala (controls emotions and memory) and the frontostriatal pathway (for learning and adapting to behavior patterns) – without these function it becomes difficult to interact with others, and this can have a strong impact on a person’s day to day activities.
HIV patients in general were weakest at identifying fear in the expressions of others, while in particular those who had a greater progression of the disease and had suffered from pneumonia, TB, and other health conditions were far less able to recognize happiness.
While antiretrovirals have done much to reduce the neurological effects of HIV, it is clear that some damage still occurs – this research is therefore a key part in recognizing the need for continuing research in the combating of HIV’s neurological effects.
There are six basic and easily recognizable emotions humans are able to express with their face – besides the two that we have discussed here (fear and happiness) there are also disgust, anger, surprise, and sadness.
As you can imagine, losing the ability to distinguish between these emotions in the face of another human is a significant event that can make it difficult to interact with others, and may well encourage a person to seek isolation. Finding a way to stave off these mental effects of HIV is a critical matter in maintaining the quality of life of patients – recognition that this occurs is the first step.
While headlines from around the world may have made some outstanding claims, the truth is that there isn’t a cure for AIDS – yet! The good news is that all of the patients over whom the fervor has been started over have something in common – they’re all still alive and no longer require treatment. That may sound a lot like they’ve been cured, but there is a the difference.
While all the patients were diagnosed with HIV and treated with antiretroviral drugs, the disease had not yet fully penetrated their bodies’ defenses – the drugs were able to thus act as a defense mechanism to keep the virus from spreading as it usually does. Once those defenses were in place, they could come off the drugs.
So aren’t they cured? No – but they no longer require continued treatment, and that is a huge advancement. Does this mean that we will see HIV patients across the globe coming off of their antiretroviral treatments? Definitely not – unfortunately, the number of patients who would survive when coming off the treatments would be relatively few, and it’s very difficult to know which ones would survive and which ones would suffer rapid progression of the disease. Of course, it’s a chance very few doctors will be willing to take with patients in their care.
However, these events may result in some policy changes when it comes to AIDS. For one thing, people generally need to decide on their own to go somewhere and get tested in order to find out they have the disease. Very few are early enough on in the disease to experience the results of these patients who no longer require treatment. This places the burden on health agencies to seek out high-risk individuals and encourage testing so that the disease can be caught early.
The other adjustment needs to occur on the side of the patient. Many who discover they are HIV positive drag their feet about starting a treatment plan – this needs to stop, as it may make the difference between early treatments stopping the spread of the disease completely, and merely being able to slow it down.
Why should a person with HIV seek treatment immediately? Here are three benefits of catching the disease early and starting an antiretroviral regimen at the first possible opportunity:
- They may possibly be able to prevent the need for treatment later on.
- It may lead to an increased lifespan.
- Risk of spreading the disease decreases by up to 96%.
This is why researchers are calling for the health industry to seek out and test individuals who are in the highest risk categories. Early detection is the key, because HIV hides in the immune system, actually becoming part of the DNA of certain white blood cells. Once this occurs, it isn’t long before the disease spreads to the lymph nodes, bone marrow, and other areas of the body, where it becomes difficult to control and is seemingly impossible to eradicate.
The widely-reported American who received treatment in Berlin was actually getting treatment for leukemia (blood cancer), and the treatment involved bone marrow transplants. He had already been receiving HIV treatments for over a decade, and had to have his bone marrow completely irradiated and replaced. The donor marrow had a rare mutation that made HIV target cells impenetrable to the disease. The result was that he no longer needed his HIV treatments. The disease isn’t cured, but it can no longer spread.
In the United States, the same treatment was repeated on a boy who was being treated for leukemia and is also HIV positive. It will take some time before it is known whether or not the treatment achieved the same effects for this boy as it did for the Seattle native that was treated in Berlin.
The baby who appeared to be cured had a completely different scenario. Full treatment began just over a day after the HIV positive baby was born, although such aggressive treatments are not given until later as a general rule. Treatment continued for one-and-a-half years, when the mother stopped treatment.
After 5 months the baby was tested and seemed to be HIV free. It is now 3 years old. While the baby seems cured, many are skeptical and believe the HIV sequence has simply been buried too deep for testing on such a living person to be viable. Either way, there is no apparent further progression of the disease or need for treatment.
The French patients who stopped their treatment were all part of a group that were started on antiretroviral drugs within weeks or months of contracting the disease – they all continued on the regimen for at least a year, and only about 1 in 7 patients were able to successfully stop their treatments at the end of the study.
So far, scientists can only speculate on why one patient may be able to stop treatment while others need treatment indefinitely to halt the disease. Some have posited that it must have something to do with certain strains of the virus being weaker, while others believe it may have something to with an increased number of CD4 cells in the patient. The problem is that studying the potential for a cure further requires HIV patients who have been recently infected – while scientists don’t have a problem intentionally infecting monkeys to run trials, this would obviously be out of the question for human trials.
Ultimately, HIV is at this point not cured. On a positive note, stopping the spread of the disease across the body is now a much more feasible goal – it has been done by accident, and even on purpose a few times. The trick now is to find a process that guarantees successful treatment instead of relying on poor odds.
You’ve heard it before – ‘you need to quit smoking’. But if you have HIV, the plea is even more desperate. A serious complication already common amongst those who are HIV positive is even more prevalent among those who smoke.
One of the most dangerous yet common infections that afflicts HIV patients is bacterial pneumonia. A recent study has shown that HIV-positive individuals who smoke have a 200% greater risk of contracting this life threatening illness than non-smokers with HIV. The study further revealed that when a smoker quits the risk is reduced greatly (although not entirely). Thousands of HIV-positive participants across three continents were involved in this extensive study connecting smoking with a higher risk of pneumonia.
While the risk was still higher for smokers even after quitting, it reduced the risk by about one-third – so it is vital for HIV patients who smoke to make this adjustment. The results were the same regardless of the type(s) of treatment already being received by patients, or the current progression of the disease – the sole factor that altered risk was whether or not the person smoked.
Thanks to antiretroviral drugs those with HIV now have a normal lifespan, but smoking can still reduce it by increasing the risk of this potentially fatal illness. While antiretroviral drugs keep HIV from progressing, they don’t cure the condition – patients still need to take every precaution they can to avoid diseases like bacterial pneumonia.
Researchers want programs to help HIV patients quit smoking to become a part of treatment plans in order to reduce these risks. Once someone is infected it can be extremely difficult for someone with HIV to recover bacterial pneumonia. This serious lung condition is just one of the many reasons individuals who are HIV positive need to quit smoking.