Researchers may have found a much needed weapon against HIV in an unexpected place: alcoholism medication.

Disulfam molecule. Image via Wikipedia.

It’s surprisingly common to find out that a drug with one purpose also works very well for another purpose – such is also the case with disulfam, a drug intended to prevent people from drinking. Disulfam was developed in the 1920s with the goal of fighting chronic alcoholism. It works by inhibiting the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, which basically means that the effects of a hangover are felt immediately. If you take the drug and then drink, symptoms will include headache, nausea, chest pain, vomiting, weakness, blurred vision, sweating, and a sense of confusion.

But professor Sharon Lewin from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne found that disulfam may have another ace up its sleeve: it could help fight HIV.

The most common treatment against HIV is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. ART uses a cocktail of three or more antiretroviral medication to stop the progression of the virus; however, this is a far cry from a cure. While ART has done massive work in increasing life expectancy for HIV positive people, it doesn’t essentially kill the virus. HIV can still remain dormant in the body, and during this state it’s basically impossible to eliminate. This is where disulfam steps in.

The drug was given to 30 people infected with dormant HIV, and it successfully managed to stir the virus up, making it detectable. This is only the first step, and doesn’t actually kill the virus, but making it detectable and targetable with treatment. Now, there are other ways to do this, but they are toxic, and generally harm other healthy cells of the body. Disulfam is completely safe… you just can’t drink. According to Professor Lewin:

“This trial clearly demonstrates that disulfiram is not toxic and is safe to use, and could quite possibly be the game changer we need.”

Julian Elliott of the department of infectious diseases at the Alfred hospital in Melbourne, who worked with Lewin stressed that while the results are encouraging, it’s only the first step – the next step is to eliminate the virus.

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Journal Reference: Elliott et al – Short-term administration of disulfiram for reversal of latent HIV infection: a phase 2 dose-escalation study

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