New research is giving scientists greater insight than ever before into the mechanism by which HIV affects the immune system, weakening it ad causing AIDS. With this discovery, better treatment and possibly even a complete cure could be within reach, as the new knowledge leads to a more thorough and complete understanding of what HIV infection does to the body, and how it can be stopped.
AIDS is currently treated with antiretroviral therapy, but this approach is not without problems. Though mostly effective, it can be more hit-and-miss than most patients or public health professionals are comfortable with in the case of so serious an illness. In addition, the drugs are expensive, and need to be taken very consistently and on a strict schedule; otherwise, not only will the disease resurge, but it will become more resistant to treatment. For patients who might not have regular, uninterrupted access to their medication, antiretroviral treatments have the potential to do more harm than good.
Until this study, the prevailing model for understanding HIV infection was that the virus colonized cells and destroyed them from the inside in the course of spreading throughout the body. However, this left some questions unanswered—in particular, it seemed to require the virus to take over more cells, faster, than it was observed to actually do. Researchers had no clear understanding of the process by which cells were being killed that were not directly affected by the virus, an understanding that is important in devising a strategy to stop it.
The answer proved to lie in the way infected cells call for an immune response. In a process called "pyroptosis"—self-immolation on the cellular level—the cells make themselves inflamed as a result of the HIV infection, and destroy themselves. This brings other immune cells to the scene, but when the pyroptosis is triggered by HIV, these new cells simply make themselves targets, causing a chain reaction. This offers new hope, however, because drugs that can inhibit pyroptosis already exist, and in animal experiments, do not appear to interfere with health themselves. If successful, this approach appears to have no potential to create more virulent versions of HIV.