Could a virus kill HIV? Ottawa research shows promise

A team in Ottawa has discovered that a virus being used in cancer studies can also destroy HIV-infected cells, boosting hope for a cure that could one day eliminate the need for lifelong medication.

'Maraba' virus destroyed HIV-infected cells in laboratory trials

This electron microscope image shows an H9 T cell, blue, infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), yellow. Researchers in Ottawa are investigating the potential of another virus to target and destroy HIV-infected cells. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

A virus being tested as a potential cancer treatment is showing promise for the treatment of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to a study by a team of Ottawa researchers.

Dr. Jonathan Angel, head of infectious diseases at the Ottawa Hospital, has been working with a virus called Maraba which was developed by other researchers in Ottawa and which is being used in clinical trials to treat cancer. 

Angel and his colleagues theorized that because HIV-infected cells have abnormalities in common with cancer cells, the same virus could be used to destroy them. That proved to be true in laboratory tests on HIV-infected cells, though Angel said it could be a long time before it can be tried in HIV-affected patients.

The results were published recently in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. 

Daily doses disheartening

Newer medications for HIV can render the virus nearly undetectable in the body, but because it quickly proliferates if a patient stops taking the drugs, the search for a cure remains important, Angel said, in part for the sake of patients' morale.

"Taking medications every day is a reminder you have a chronic infection," Angel said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "It can be psychologically very difficult. And (HIV) is also a disease that's stigmatizing."

However, the effectiveness of modern treatments actually makes research to find a cure somewhat more difficult, because a virus that's been reduced to a very low level in the body is a more challenging target.

"Trying to find those bits of virus hidden in different tissues in very small amounts, it's a major challenge," Angel said.