The National Institutes of Health has awarded Philadelphia-area researchers a four-year, $6.2 million grant to study interferon alpha treatment in patients with HIV infection.
Interferon alpha is not a new drug — it’s been used for years to fight hepatitis C, and the body produces it naturally during an infection. But in the case of HIV, scientists are beginning to find that interferon alpha may be an effective therapy to further reduce viral loads in patients who have been taking traditional antiretroviral drugs and have relatively strong immune systems.
“The introduction of interferon alpha in a recovered immune system makes that immune system more powerful to fight against HIV-1,” said Luis Montaner, director of the Wistar Institute’s HIV Immunopathogenesis Lab. “The answer that the future holds for us is whether that response is going to be clinically useful, and how useful is, basically what the study is trying to answer.”
With the new grant, Montaner and his colleagues will follow up on their earlier work. And with the help of clinics across Philadelphia, they will add 54 patients to a new clinical trial to investigate whether interferon alpha is more effective when patients stop taking antiretrovirals for one month.
“The rationale is that we will allow the virus to come out — to be seen by the immune system — so the immune system can go back and clear it in a much better fashion,” said Montaner.
The end goal remains to get patients off all drugs, including the highly effective but expensive and often hard-to-tolerate antiretrovirals. Montaner cautioned they are still far from a cure, but if this trial is successful, it will be good news for the 30,000 people living with HIV infection in Philadelphia.
“We would be adding one more piece to a strategy of therapy that will make a cure more likely in the future,” said Montaner.