AIDS is one of the greatest pandemics in the world. It was only discovered 35 years ago in Los Angeles, but now around 38 million people have been infected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and approximately half of them are unaware of the fact. This is what the virus does: it spreads exponentially, at the rate of about 4,000 new cases a year in Spain alone.
So far, no cure has been found for HIV; antiretroviral drugs only lengthen the lives of infected patients, and they have numerous side effects and are very costly for countries’ health systems. On average, every patient needs 7,000 euros a year, so public spending in Spain amounts to 490 million euros because there are 70,000 people with positive serology, and a total of between 150,000 and 180,000 are affected.
Troubled by these figures, a 27- year-old researcher from Torrox, Óscar Jurado, wants to reverse the situation and put a stop to one of the biggest pandemics which threatens the world. He has begun a pioneering scientific project to look for a cure which will eradicate HIV, which is responsible for the AIDS illness, by applying genetic engineering techniques. This line of research differs from those which seek new antiretroviral treatments.
Óscar, who has a degree in Biology from Malaga university and then went on to do a Masters degree in Virology at the Complutense university in Madrid, later carried out research at the National Microbiology Centre of the Carlos III Health Institute. Under the auspices of the Ramón y Cajal hospital in Madrid and its foundation, and at the request of the head of the Infectious Diseases unit at the hospital, he carried out a second phase which involved experiments on animals.
“If we can raise the money, in four or five years we could have an effective cure for AIDS and HIV,” he says, but he knows it will be difficult because of cuts in funding for scientific research and because pharmaceutical companies are not enthusiastic about his project. “The companies don’t want there to be a cure; they prefer to go on selling their drugs,” he says.
Óscar’s method consists of genetically manipulating the HIV so that it is not pathogenic, in such a way that when it is introduced into an infected individual it can stop the virus expressing itself. It would do this by suppressing the HIV’s ability to replicate, something which remains latent in the so-called resting memory cells, unlike the antiretroviral treatments which are currently used and which are ineffective in this sense.
“The antiretrovirals are efficient and they allow a controlled evolution of the virus, but they are incapable of carrying out the desired function in certain organs where the virus replicates at residual levels,” explains Óscar.
This research focuses on “using gene therapy to establish small RNA interference (‘RNAi’) in a stable manner, to suppress and prevent the replication and genesis of new virions in the case of reactivation.” Óscar Jurado considers this objective to be realistic and says it could also have synergies with other therapeutic strategies. “It will open the door for other illnesses such as diabetes and some types of cancer to be treated with this technique,” he explains.
This young scientist believes the possibilities of his project eradicating this illness are “high” and he says it will be developed “in vitro” in four or five years. He will continue his research in conjunction with the Infectious Diseases department of the Ramón y Cajal University Hospital.