Blood cancer drug could replace lifelong HIV medication

William West/AAP PHOTOS

An existing cancer drug could be the key to curing HIV for the almost 40 million people living with the disease.

Venetoclax has been helping people with blood cancer since 2015 and a new trial has found it effective at targeting hibernating infected HIV cells.

The hidden cells cause the virus to stay in the body permanently and currently cannot be treated, meaning those diagnosed with HIV need life-long antiviral treatment.

Australian research houses the Doherty Institute and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research jointly conducted a study which found venetoclax delayed the virus from rebounding by two weeks.

Hall Institute researcher Philip Arandjelovic said the discovery was important in preventing the continuing spread of the disease.

"In attacking dormant HIV cells and delaying viral rebound, venetoclax has shown promise beyond that of currently approved treatments," he said.

The drug "potently reduced" the amount of intact viral DNA in cells, Doherty Institute researcher Youry Kim said.

"This indicates that venetoclax is selectively killing the infected cells, which rely on key proteins to survive, (it) has the ability to antagonise one of the key survival proteins," she said.

More than 29,000 Australians live with HIV, an immunosuppressing virus that if left untreated, can lead to AIDS.

Most of those infected with the disease take antiretroviral therapy designed to suppress the virus.

If a patient stops taking the therapy, hibernating HIV-infected cells can reactivate and the virus can re-emerge.

About 98 per cent of Australians living with HIV have completely suppressed infected cells - managed by current medication.

A clinical trial of the drug is set to start at the end of the year in Denmark and in Australia in 2024.

Joint corresponding author Sharon Lewin said the trial was a significant next step.

"It's exciting to see venetoclax, which has already helped thousands of blood cancer patients, now being repurposed as a treatment that could also help change the lives of people living with HIV and put an end to the requirement for life-long medication," she said.