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While there is no cure for lingering viral infections such as HIV and herpes, a recent study at Princeton University suggests it may be possible to deactivate such viruses indefinitely with the flick of a genetic switch.
Princeton scientists Leor Weinberger and Thomas Shenk hope their work will illuminate the processes by which human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other viruses transition into dormant phases in their hosts. The researchers have discovered a specific genetic trigger that makes HIV fall into its latent phase, where the virus essentially hibernates, relatively harmlessly, but awaiting an opportunity to re-emerge and wreak havoc.
Weinberger and Shenk studied how an HIV protein, called Tat, plays a major part in initiating and also interrupting the cascade of chemical reactions that leads to full-blown infection. Based on their work and previous studies by others, they have proposed that the Tat protein and the enzymes that modify it serve as a "resistor," a component of an electrical circuit that reduces the flow of current.
Though Weinberger emphasized the significance of the discovery was primarily for fundamental science research, he said that potential applications to HIV might be an improvement over drug cocktails, which are the mixtures of antiviral agents that have been the best-available treatment for the disease for a decade.