A protein known as A3 has been linked to preventing the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in roughly one percent of disease carriers, a new study finds. Scientists believe early detection and treatment of the virus can keep the otherwise dwindling protein stores from depleting, thus shortening overall treatment times.

People with HIV who carry the protein in greater quantities are known as “controllers,” meaning their bodies have greater ability to stop the virus’ spread throughout their bodies without the use of daily antiviral medication. Study researchers from Northwestern University now claim that disease carriers may have the ability to become controllers if the virus is caught in its earliest stages, before the A3 proteins have degraded.

"Perhaps starting anti-HIV drugs very soon after HIV is caught, rather than the current practice of waiting until later to start, would work like the controllers' first line of defense," Dr. Richard D'Aquila, director of Northwestern's HIV Translational Research Center and the study’s senior author, said in a news release. "If we preserve A3, it could minimize HIV's spread through the body as this protein seems to do in controllers."

The team of researchers conducted their study, published in PLOS ONE, by analyzing the controllers’ cells in a lab. They looked specifically at the A3 protein levels among a type of white blood cells called resting memory T cells. When HIV infects a cell, normally the virus breaks down the host’s immune system and opportunistic infections become increasingly more potent. In controllers, however, the A3 protein immediately counteracts the new HIV produced by other cells and stymies its spread throughout the body.

"The intrinsic immune system recognizes the basic guts of the virus — the nucleic acids — that HIV can't change and then damages those nucleic acids," D'Aquila explained.

Roughly 1.1 million people in the United States were living with HIV at the end of 2009, the most recent year the data is available. About 18 percent of those people don’t even know they’re infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such a statistic gives researchers like D’Aquila alarm, because it signals that treatment isn’t being sought. The present study suggests treatment as early as possible is the most effective line of defense for the 99 percent of carriers that aren’t controllers.

Researchers pointed to the Jan. 2013 birth of a Memphis baby who was born with HIV after the mother was diagnosed with the disease. Doctors administered antiviral medication within 36 hours of the baby’s birth, and now that baby takes no medication and is cured of HIV, according to D’Aquila.

His team is currently at work to develop a drug that boosts A3 production. Over time, the protein’s entire stores get completely wiped out, making the body’s fight against the infection all the more difficult.

"Early-as-possible detection — much easier with our new technology — and early drug treatment," D’Aqila concluded, “will be the future of HIV therapy.”

Source: De Pasquale M, Kourteva Y, Allos T, D’Aquila R. Lower HIV Provirus Levels Are Associated with More APOBEC3G Protein in Blood Resting Memory CD4+ T Lymphocytes of Controllers In Vivo. PLOS ONE. 2013.