HIV infects cells of the immune system and reprograms them to spew out copies of the virus. But not all of these HIV-infected cells roam freely in the body; some HIV goes into hibernation instead, avoiding the attention of the immune system and of antiretrovirals. This hibernation is called "latent infection." It results in "reservoirs" of undetected HIV tucked away in various parts of the body, ready to seed the body with more of the virus when triggered.
There is still much we don't know about how latent HIV infection works, but many experts believe that if a way can be found to find this hidden HIV and eliminate its reservoirs in the body, it may bring us one huge step closer to a cure.
According to Futurity, destroying latent HIV infections may one day be possible:
The strategy involves reactivating the HIV and coaxing it out of hiding, but only after boosting other immune system T cells and preparing them to ambush and eradicate the virus as it emerges.
"Our study results strongly suggest that a vaccination to boost the immune response immediately prior to reactivating latent virus may be essential for totally eradicating HIV infection," says Robert Siliciano, professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
Dr. Siliciano is one of the world's foremost researchers in this area. He was the first who explained that HIV could survive in an inactive state, even after years of antiretroviral treatment. Now, he explains, getting to the stage where the virus can be successfully eradicated depends on finding a successful way to activate this latent HIV. He is one of a number of researchers exploring different ways to do this.
The AIDS Beacon reported that at CROI 2012, a recent HIV research conference, U.S. scientists discussed a new method that may help force out these latent viruses:
The study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill included six HIV-positive individuals whose HIV infections were well controlled with antiretroviral therapy. In this study, participants received a single 400 mg dose of Zolinza [vorinostat].
In contrast to the Melbourne-based trial, the results from this study suggested that Zolinza treatment resulted in a five-fold increase in the activity of HIV genetic material without serious side effects.
Another drug cited in many studies was disulfiram, which produced conflicting results.
You can read much more about recent research on eliminating latent HIV in this recap from HIV i-Base, which is part of our coverage of CROI 2012 at TheBodyPRO.com.