01/10/2014 06:00 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Immunotoxin 3B3-PE38 Could Kill HIV-Infected Cells

Ingram Publishing via Getty Images

A toxin created by scientists is able to kill cells where HIV is replicating despite antiretroviral therapy, a new mouse study shows.

The findings suggest that the genetically modified bacterial toxin, called 3B3-PE38 and created in 1998, could be used as a complement to antiretroviral therapy (ART), noted researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Right now, antiretroviral therapy is used to manage HIV in people with the condition by suppressing and stopping progression of the virus. However, the therapy currently needs to be taken for an infected person's lifetime or else HIV will reappear, and even if a person takes the therapy, cells in different tissues of the body can still express HIV.

For the study, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, researchers took mice engineered to have human immune systems and infected them with HIV. Then, the mice were given antiretroviral drugs for four weeks. The researchers then split the mice into two groups: One group then received two weeks of the special immunotoxin in addition to the antiretrovirals, while the other group of mice continued to receive just the antiretrovirals.

Researchers found that the mice given the immunotoxin in addition to the antiretroviral therapy had fewer HIV-infected cells that were producing the virus. In addition, they had lower HIV blood levels, compared with the mice who only received the antiretroviral therapy.

"Our results demonstrate a dramatic reduction in persistent HIV throughout the body resulting from the killing of virus producing cells," researchers wrote in the study. "Thus, our study provides new insights into the locations of HIV persistence during ART and a demonstration that persistent HIV can be successfully targeted inside the body."

Though additional studies are needed to prove this, researchers said the findings provide hope that the immunotoxin could be used to help humans achieve sustained remission from HIV sans antiretroviral therapy.