26 March 2013


In a research laboratory in Brisbane, ARC Future Fellow, Associate Professor David Harrich, from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (Molecular Virology Laboratory), has reached a milestone in the ongoing battle to combat the human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV. 

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) originated in non-human primates in Sub-Saharan Africa and was transferred to humans during the early 20th century. It infects vital cells within the immune system and leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

The virus, which is transferred via body fluids—during sexual contact, blood transfusions, sharing of needles, accidental contact with contaminated needles or other media equipment (known as sharps), or through the placenta during pregnancy—immobilises the immune system of its victims, making even the most common illnesses potentially life threatening.

In a recent study, published in the journal Human Gene Therapy, researchers engineered the ‘Nullbasic’ protein, a mutant of the HIV Tat protein and their experiments revealed that when introduced to immune cells targeted by HIV, Nullbasic slowed the reproduction of the virus and exhibited qualities of an antiviral agent against HIV.

This achievement is a significant development in the fight against the virus, which Professor Harrich has been researching since the mid-eighties when the HIV/AIDS pandemic emerged. This latest research has been funded by the ARC Future Fellowships scheme.

“I’ve come close to giving up in the past, but today I am so encouraged, I feel very fortunate because a lot of scientists are unable to stay in the same game long enough to see these sorts of developments,” said Professor Harrich.

“It involves perseverance, dedication and of course sustained research funding.”

The development of research outcomes with this protein marks an important milestone in the ongoing battle to combat HIV.

“I have never seen anything like it,” commented Professor Harrich. “The modified protein works every time—this is like fighting fire with fire.”

United Nations figures show that while the number of people infected with HIV throughout the world rose from 33.5 million in 2010 to 34 million in 2011, new cases of HIV have been reduced by at least 50 per cent over the past decade in 25 low and middle-income countries.

A treatment based on a single protein could be the beginning to an end to the multiple drug treatments currently administered to HIV patients, resulting in more affordable therapy and a better quality of life.

If all goes according to plan, a Nullbasic-based treatment is probably at least ten years away and will need to cross several important hurdles including safety and efficacy. For HIV patients of the future this treatment could reduce progression into AIDS with associated susceptibility to infections and certain types of cancers.

“(A patient) would still be infected with HIV—it’s not a cure for the virus—but the virus would stay dormant, it wouldn't wake up and develop into AIDS. The hope is that with a treatment like this, you would maintain a healthy immune system,” explains Professor Harrich.

For more information please contact the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.