Pinpointing where HIV hides in the body is a big step towards a cure

Photo credit: Westmead Institute for Medical Research

Associate Professor Sarah Palmer

University of Sydney | 2014 | $906,231

In 2015, an estimated 25,313 people were living with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) in Australia, of whom an estimated 2,619 (10%) were unaware of their HIV-positive status1

Finding a cure for HIV has been a major focus since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s in the United States. The Centre for Disease Control reports that the estimated lifetime cost of treating HIV is $379,000 (in 2010 in US dollars) per person. 

Although the development of anti-retroviral therapies for the treatment of HIV remains one of the great triumphs of modern medicine, this treatment is not a cure.

Professor Sarah Palmer along with researchers at Westmead Institute for Medical Research and the University of Sydney have discovered where the tiny remaining amounts of HIV virus are hiding, leading to new hopes of a cure.

‘Small amount of virus hide in cells of an infected individual and current anti-HIV therapy cannot eliminate this virus,’ Professor Palmer explained.

‘The funding from NHMRC allowed my group (HIV reservoir group) to invent a new method for identifying the cells in which HIV hides in patients who are on anti-HIV therapy. This opens up some promising new avenues for a possible cure in the future.’

This research received an NHMRC Project Grant, helping to create new knowledge by funding the best investigator-initiated research project in an area relevant to human health.

Now it is informing a potential cure through new-age, nano-therapies that will target the remaining cells to eliminate the HIV virus. As part of a large collaborative group, Professor Palmer has now received an NHMRC Program Grant to develop these nano-particles for a new-age treatment for HIV with the hope of a cure.

Program Grants provide support for teams of high calibre researchers to pursue broad based, multi-disciplinary and collaborative research activities. Teams are expected to contribute to new knowledge at a leading international level in important areas of health and medical research.

‘We believe this Program Grant will allow us to continue our quest to cure HIV infection and really improve the lives of HIV infected individuals,’ Professor Palmer said.

‘I hope that we will have a cure for HIV in 5-10 years and I really do believe by targeting this remaining virus that hopefully we can develop effective therapies that will entirely eliminate the virus and therefore cure HIV infected individuals.

‘In addition, having a program grant will allow us to support the research of new honours and PhD students who are excited to be working in the field of HIV curative research—developing and building Australia’s future scientists.

‘I feel very fortunate to receive funding from the NHMRC. This generous support has been fundamentally important for the development of new assays and therapies which will take us several steps closer to an HIV cure.’

The Kirby Institute (2016) Annual Surveillance Report of HIV, viral hepatitis, STIs 2016