40 years of a great challenge for science and humanity

The history of science is written every day and in every discovery. Like the discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), in 1983, by the team of Luc Montagnier and his then student, Françoise Barré, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Only five years after this discovery, Andreas Meyerhans, ICREA researcher at the Department of Medicine and Life Sciences of the Pompeu Fabra University (MELIS-UPF), began his research on HIV, to which he has devoted the last 35 years.

Currently, in Spain, about one hundred and seventy thousand people live with HIV and every year, almost three thousand contract the infection. Although at this time there is still no care for HIV, the development of antiviral drugs, to reduce the viral load to undetectable levels, has been fundamental to offer alternatives to a chronic infection such as that caused by this virus.

HIV changes rapidly and is a great strategist to infect. One of the methods it uses is to pretend to be dormant, so, by means of the protein Schlafen 12, a German word meaning ‘asleep’, it causes infected cells to stop producing viral proteins. This dormant state is a disadvantage for people living with HIV, because it prevents their immune system’s defence cells from identifying and destroying virus-infected cells, as well as making them “invisible” in antiretroviral therapy.

Looking for strategies to definitively eliminate the virus, Andreas’ team has also studied the use of immunotherapeutic treatments to control chronic viral infections. Thus, they have identified a key cell type to reactivate the elimination mechanism of infected cells.

Each step in the research brings us closer to finding a functional and definitive treatment to get rid of a virus that has marked the recent history of mankind, causing social segregation, due to the stigma suffered by homosexuals and sex workers, who were linked to the spread of the virus in the 1980s.

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