The biggest obstacle to finding a cure for HIV, is the latently HIV infected cells. Patients who are taking antiretroviral therapy, manage to suppress the levels of HIV in their bloodstream, but their is a reservoir of latently infected cells and the moment treatment is stopped, these cells start producing more copies of HIV and viral levels rebound. This is the reason why people being treated for HIV have to remain on these antiretroviral drugs for life.

Researchers have been looking at ways to activate these latent reservoirs in an attempt to shock the virus out of its hiding places and then attempt to kill the remaining virus, in what is known as ‘kick and kill’ strategy. So far success with this strategy has been limited.

Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute ( TSRI) have found a natural compound called Cortistatin A, that reduces the residual levels of virus from infected and  dormant cells by an average of 92.3%, establishing a near permanent state of latency and greatly reducing the virus’ capacity for reactivation.

The results suggest that we might be able to supplement current treatments with this type of TAT inhibitor to achieve the holy grail, a functional HIV cure, by reducing levels of virus and preventing later reactivation and viral rebound.

Cortistatin A was isolated from a marine sponge, Corticum simplex in 2006 and in 2008 and research chemist Phil Baron from the TSRI won the race to synthesize the compound . The compound works by significantly reducing the levels of viral messenger RNA, which is the blueprint for producing more virus.

In the study of 9 HIV infected patients on antiretrovirals,  the levels of viral reactivation was reduced by an average of 92.3 %. The team is hopeful that this could be an alternative mode of treatment rather than the current research into kick and kill and that this might lead to a functional cure for HIV. They will now conduct further trials into its effectiveness.