This virus could be used to treat HIV

A relatively newly-discovered human virus, currently called GBV-C, may help in the fight against HIV.

The virus, which is related to Hepatitis C, is spread through sexual contact, blood transfusions, sharing contaminated needles and from mother to fetus. It can be found in a percentage of stored, banked blood that is later given in transfusions, but the blood bankers don’t test for it. Those who receive this blood often carry the live virus.

However, years of research have shown that this virus is non-pathogenic (it doesn’t cause any disease in humans, even when present in large amounts). While it doesn’t have any disease-causing ability, it has been discovered that it can do at least one thing that is beneficial for those who carry it: GBV-C turns out to help patients infected with HIV. Patients who are co-infected with both viruses tend to live longer and not be as ill as untreated HIV patients.

The investigators had known for a few years that HIV patients who became infected with GBV-C from a transfusion often did better than non-GBV-C infected patients, surviving longer and developing fewer HIV/AIDS-related complications. Building off of these observations, they decided to use GBV-C in a controlled experiment to validate this assumption.

They followed a number of patients who had HIV and got transfused. Some became infected with GBV-C and others didn’t. Some were not on any type of anti-HIV treatment, while some were on antiretrovirals. Some who were not on antiretrovirals were started on them after they became GBV-C positive.

Scanning electron micrograph of the HIV-1 virus, colored green, budding from cultured lymphocyte, via Creative Commons

Scanning electron micrograph of the HIV-1 virus, colored green, budding from cultured lymphocyte, via Creative Commons

The researchers followed these patients over time — some for over four years. They were monitored for continued presence of GBV-C, HIV, complications from HIV they developed and how many died. The data showed that regardless as to whether the patients were on antiretroviral drugs, the GBV-C positive patients did better than these who were treated with antiretrovirals or those who refused treatment. Also, fewer of the patients who were infected with both viruses died, compared to how many were expected to die over that tiem period.

At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, note that this is not a vaccination. A vaccination uses pieces of virus, whole inactivated virus or attenuated virus to cause the patient vaccinated to build antibodies. With GBV-C “treatment,” the patients are deliberately infused with a whole, live virus with the intent to infect them.

This isn’t the first time something like this has been done. Most people think that Edwin Jenner developed a vaccine against smallpox. He did, in a way, but it would be more accurate to say that what he did was infect people with cowpox. Those vaccinated got sick from cowpox, but not nearly so sick as they might have if they had gotten smallpox.   Cowpox is fairly closely related to smallpox, so when cowpox-infected patients developed antibodies against cowpox, those same antibodies also protected against a future infection from smallpox.

There are proposals afoot to use GBV-C as a similar treatment for HIV/AIDS. For example, GBV-C infection could be a workable alternative for people with HIV who refuse antiretroviral treatment because of cost or side-effects. The virus could also be used as a boost in patients on antiretrovirals who are not doing well.

Infecting people in developing countries with GBV-C could give them some form of longer-lasting treatment against HIV than they currently have, as it’s difficult to keep HIV patients in developing countries supplied with antiretroviral medications. There are a number of reasons for these difficulties: transportation problems, local corruption, theft of drugs, problems finding the patients, cost of the medications themselves, weather conditions and so on. Some of these patients may get a few weeks or months of medication and then be without all retrovirals for months. Or may have to take whatever antiretroviral that’s available, whether or not it was one of  the ones that he had been prescribed to take.  By injecting them with GBV-C, they would at least be getting some sustained help that would be independent of the previously mentioned problems that affect drug delivery currently.

Of course, there are some people who oppose injecting a live virus into a patient, citing the “First, do no harm,” adage. But in the years that this virus has been known and studied, it’s caused no known diseases. Even if it did, wouldn’t it be better to cause a relatively mild disease and protect against a killer disease (just as Jenner did with cowpox-smallpox)?

As AIDS research progresses, scientists are going to have to continue to think outside the box in pursuit of an eventual cure.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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