Statin drugs that lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease may also help slow down the AIDS virus, Spanish researchers reported on Monday.
Statins alone given to HIV-infected patients suppressed the virus and helped replenish immune cells known as T-cells — two key measures of health in patients with the virus. The drugs seem to stop the virus from infecting cells by stopping them from opening the cell membrane, and stop the virus from getting out of already infected cells, the team at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid reported. “Our results indicate that statins might be suitable antiretroviral drugs for more accessible AIDS treatment,” the researchers report in Monday’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. Human immunodeficiency virus causes AIDS by infecting immune system cells. The virus injects its genetic material into the cells and forces them to become virus factories, pumping out more copies of the virus. Eventually the immune system is destroyed and patients die of a range of illnesses such as pneumonia. There is no cure and more than 25 million people have died of AIDS globally. Drugs called highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART can suppress the virus and allow the immune system to function, but they are expensive and have side-effects. One side-effect is called lipodystrophy, a series of metabolic changes that can raise cholesterol levels and cause a redistribution of body fat. Patients with lipodystrophy are often given statins. Immunologist Gustavo del Real and colleagues wanted to see if the statins may themselves affect the course of infection. They first tested HIV-infected cells in a lab dish and then in mice. “Results suggest that HIV-1 entry into and exit from the host cell require actin cytoskeleton rearrangement and adequate cholesterol levels in host and viral membranes,” they wrote in their report. The cytoskeleton is the structure of the cell itself. Then they tested six people infected with HIV who had not yet begun HAART therapy. They got lovastatin for a month. Levels of the virus, measured by genetic material, fell and T-cell count went up. When the patients stopped taking the statin the viral levels rebounded, the researchers reported. “The data suggest that statins can inhibit HIV-1 replication in chronically infected individuals, and support future clinical studies of statins as possible antiretroviral agents,” the researchers concluded.(Source: Journal of Experimental Medicine: Reuters Health News: Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent: August 2004.)