Youth Blog – Finding hidden HIV virus in the body
Written by Antonia Clifford, Project Manager, and Thomas Remble, Project Director
Researchers have taken another step forward in the search for an HIV cure – especially for people living with HIV. A new study co-authored by Dr. Steven Wolinsky at Northwestern University helps us understand why it’s so hard to get rid of HIV completely using current medications.
We know that getting on (and staying on) HIV medications can reduce the amount of virus in the blood to near zero (or so little that we can no longer detect it with standard tests). But what happens to the remaining copies of the virus? Is it gone completely?
Quick definition check: Antiretroviral Therapy, or ART, is a term for a number of medications that are frequently used to fight HIV. But, as good as the medications are, they can’t completely eliminate the virus.
The mystery of where to find the remaining copies of the virus may explain how HIV rebounds when someone stops taking ART medications. New research shows that the virus still lives and grows in a different body system called the lymphatic system.
Where does HIV live in the body?
Since many doctors test for the amount of virus in the bloodstream, you might think that blood is the only place that HIV lives. But the virus is far more clever than that. If your HIV is undetectable, there can still be pockets of HIV stored in other places, like your lymph nodes. Medications don’t always treat the virus in these hard to reach places in your body, and as this study found:
“The HIV virus is still replicating in lymphoid tissue, even when it is undetectable in the blood of patients on antiretroviral drugs” .
HIV continues to make copies of itself there, and small amounts of HIV leak back into the blood (even while being on HIV medications). As researchers explained, this means that “The virus rapidly rebounds in the blood if patients stop their drugs”  – causing potential harm to the immune system and other health issues.
Next Steps to a Cure
Believe it or not, this recent study is actually hopeful news. According to one of the study’s authors:
“It really changes how we think about what’s happening in treated patients, and may help explain why some of the attempts to clear the reservoirs to cure people of HIV have failed in the past” .
This new study may lead to new drugs or treatments to target those remaining copies of the virus. There are many pieces to the puzzle when it comes to ending the HIV epidemic – including better access to HIV care, more effective medications and treatments, biomedical prevention like PrEP, building communities of support, and ending stigma. Further breakthroughs like this one help us chart our direction forward on the “Path to a Cure” for HIV.
*Stay Tuned! We have a new video series premiering soon specifically for young people living with HIV! We’ll tackle topics like relationships, finding a doctor, and finding support.*
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 Lorenzo-Redondo, R., Fryer, H. R., Bedford, T., Kim, E., Archer, J., Kosakovsky Pond, S.L., Chung, Y., Penugonda, S., Chipman, J.G., Fletcher, C. V., Schacker, T. W., Malim, M.H., Rambaut, A., Haase, A. T., McLean, A. R., & S. M. Wolinsky (2016). “Persistent HIV-1 replication maintains the tissue reservoir during therapy.” Nature. doi:10.1038/nature16933.