Although people with HIV can still lead healthy lives thanks to antiretroviral medications, a cure for the virus remains elusive. However, a recent discovery of how specialized immune cells, called follicular cytotoxic T cells, behave may help us completely shut down HIV for good. Treatments based on this discovery could even help patients with an array of chronic infections that attack the immune system.

In a recent study, researchers from Monash University in Australia discovered that the T cells, a type of specialized killer white blood cell in the immune system, are able to seek out “hidden” HIV-infected cells in tissue and destroy them. These cells occur naturally in the body, but in numbers too low to effectively eradicate chronic virus infections. However, the team believe that boosting the numbers and killing function of the T cells could serve as a way to treat, and possibly cure HIV, as well as other similar viruses that attack the immune system, such as the Epstein-Barr virus.

Part of what makes HIV so difficult to treat is the virus’ ability to “hide” from our immune system. Viruses such as HIV and the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, often hide in the body and become active again when the immune system is compromised. However, the newly discovered T cells can effectively enter the viruses’ favorite hiding spot, an area inside lymphoid tissue, called B cell follicles.

"We've shown for the first time that there are specialised killer T cells that can migrate into a part of the lymphoid tissue and control hidden infection," explained study author Dr Di Yu in a recent statement.

The team propose that treatments based on this discovery could help patients with an array of chronic immune system infections, and human trials could begin as early as the next five years.

"We could potentially transfer these specialised super potent killer T cells into patients, or we could treat patients with proteins that can drag these specialised killer T-cells into the right spots, specifically to the hot spots where HIV can hide on antiviral treatment," explained study co-author Dr. Sharon Lewin, in a recent statement.

Source: Leong YA, Chen y, Ong HS, et al. CXCR5 + follicular cytotoxic T cells control viral infection in B cell follicles. Nature Immunology. 2016