Could An Anti-Alcoholism Drug Cure HIV?

By May Wilkerson 11/25/15

Disulfiram may potentially "flush out" HIV from so-called hiding places and could lead to a cure.

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A potential cure for HIV may lie in a drug called disulfiram that has been used since the 1920s to treat alcoholism. The drug discourages drinking by making the body temporarily hyper-sensitive to alcohol. But it may also be effective as a latency-reactivation agent (LRA). These are drugs that allow HIV to resurface after antiretroviral therapy (ART) has stopped. The hope is that drugs like disulfiram could root out the last of the infection from its “hiding places,” so that other drugs can be used to eliminate it entirely from the body.

Recently, researchers found that disulfiram was effective as an LRA. But the results were only seen in a lab and scientists were unsure if this reactivation effect would occur in actual people living with HIV.

But a new study, published this month in The Lancet, found that disulfiram might actually work in humans. The authors tested the drug on 30 HIV-infected people currently on ART and found evidence in their blood samples that the HIV had become latent. Even better, the drug seemed to have no serious side effects for users, regardless of dosage.

Though the findings seem hopeful, it’s too soon to tell if the medication will be an effective “cure” for HIV. Though initial experiments on reactivation drugs like disulfiram showed promise, subsequent studies using samples of HIV-infected cells from actual patients produced much weaker results.

The authors of the latest study noted that disulfiram might work as part of a combination of drugs. A prior study from this past spring found that certain combinations of two LRAs may be more effective than one drug on its own. Though combinations of drugs other than disulfiram proved more potent in activating latency, many of those drugs are more toxic and contain worse side effects. Disulfiram is considered a promising addition to potential HIV treatment because of its minimal side effects.

“Our findings support further study of disulfiram combinations and consideration of future clinical testing,” the authors of the previous study wrote.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.