An uncommon use for a common drug offers hope to millions of HIV-positive patients

By Liz H. ‘10

Microscopic view of HIV (green) emerging from an infected T-cell. CDC

A promising new HIV treatment has been discovered in an unlikely source:  a widely available acne medication developed in the 1970s.  A team of scientists from Johns Hopkins University reports that minocyclin stops HIV-infected human cells from reactivating and replicating, in a study published in the April 15th issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.  Their findings may lead to an improved and more effective treatment regimen for HIV infection.

The researchers focused their study on latent, non-replicating HIV-infected human T-cells.  T-cells are a type white blood cell that normally fights infection.  HIV infects T-cells and can “rest” inside of them for an extended period of time.  The virus does not harm the T-cell during this latent phase, but can eventually “wake-up” and re-activate the T-cell, which spreads HIV infection and weakens the immune system.

In this study, the scientists treated latent HIV-infected human T-cells with minocycline and measured the level of re-activated T-cells over time.  They also performed the same measurements on cells that were not treated with minocycline.  The researchers found that the minocycline-treated cells did not display detectable levels of reactivation while the untreated cells displayed elevated levels.

Upon closer analysis of the activity of minocycline inside of cells, the scientists discovered that the drug interferes with important cellular communication pathways that cause the T-cell to activate and spread HIV to other cells.  “It prevents the virus from escaping in the one in a million cells in which it lays dormant in a person…That’s the goal:  Sustaining a latent non-infectious state,” explains Gregory Szeto, a Hopkins graduate student who worked on the project.

These findings suggest that minocycline could be used in conjunction with HAART, the current HIV treatment standard, to keep the virus dormant inside of T-cells.  “While HAART is really effective in keeping down active replication, minocycline is another arm of defense against the virus,” says author Janice Clements.  Minocycline is an attractive addition to the current arsenal of HIV medications because it is relatively inexpensive, does not inhibit the ability of T-cells to fight other infections, and is not likely to cause viral drug resistance.

Current treatment for HIV/AIDS involves a combination therapy approach known as HAART.  Patients on HAART take at least 3 antiretroviral drugs daily that act on the virus in different ways to reduce its levels in the bloodstream.  Although HAART can extend the life of an infected individual, it is not a cure and causes unpleasant side effects and the development of drug resistance.  For the 40 million HIV-positive individuals worldwide, this new use for minocycline promises improved outcomes.

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11 thoughts on “An uncommon use for a common drug offers hope to millions of HIV-positive patients”

  1. Can anyone explain the picture above. I understand the green spheres are HIV viruses and the violet is the CD4 T-cell. But what is the structure in pink/red?

  2. This is great news. I hope this treatment is available to third world nations where the disease has been raging and killing millions

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