BTN LiveBIG: Northwestern researchers discover new 'starvation diet' for HIV

BTN LiveBIG: Northwestern researchers discover new 'starvation diet' for HIV

Thanks to advances in treatment, HIV and AIDS don’t instill the same dread that they did in the 1980s and early 1990s, when those diseases were largely misunderstood and spreading rapidly.

But they’ve hardly gone away: Today, more than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And with the pace of new infections continuing at a rapid clip here and throughout other parts of the world, it’s as important as ever to find a way to knock HIV out cold.

Fortunately, Northwestern University researchers are in the early stages of creating a new treatment for the virus that would cut it off from its biggest “food” source — sugar.

After HIV infects an activated immune cell, it “craves” sugar, amino acids and other nutrients in order to replicate and fuel its wild growth throughout the body. The Northwestern researchers identified the switch that turns on the immune cell’s sugar and nutrient pipeline, then blocked that switch with an experimental chemical compound. They found shutting down the pipeline in that way essentially starved the virus to the point that it couldn’t make more copies of itself.

Northwestern_TaylorAccording to Dr. Harry Taylor, research assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, current drugs for HIV target the virus directly and stop it from replicating once it infects immune cells. But this new, experimental treatment targets the cell rather than the virus.

This method won’t be a replacement for current treatments, but rather an option to use in addition to current therapies, Taylor said.

“The most effective treatments [of HIV] include a cocktail of multiple drugs that target the virus in different stages of the life cycle,” he explained. “It reduces the likelihood of the virus mutating to evade these target therapeutic options. This new series of compounds that we are proposing could be added to this toolbox for options that physicians could have to treat individuals.”

When HIV enters the bloodstream, it searches out active T cells, the “commanders-in-chief” of the immune system. When these cells become activated by responding to other pathogens or allergens in the bloodstream, they start consuming sugar and amino acids from the blood, which they need to churn out the building blocks of DNA. When HIV finds an active T cell, it hijacks the cell’s sugar supply in order to build millions of copies of itself and invade other cells.

The idea to test this new chemical compound for HIV evolved from Taylor’s time at Vanderbilt University, where he served on the faculty until he joined Northwestern in 2012. At NU, he met chemists who had isolated compounds that were able to halt the growth of cancer cells in animals and petri dishes.

Those observations led Taylor and his colleagues to the conclusion that these compounds could stop HIV from replicating. Those experiments laid the groundwork for more recent investigations that were continued and later successfully completed at Northwestern. In vitro, the compound shut off the glucose and other nutrients and prevented HIV from having enough building blocks of DNA to make the genetic material it needed to reproduce.

This breakthrough in treatment for HIV wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible support and scientific investment from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine as well as the hard work and dedication of researchers like Taylor.

“It’s been my personal calling and interest to try to contribute to the fight against HIV and other pathogens,” he said.

By Maggie Hays and Alec Weine