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10 Nov 2020

Researchers working hard to put viral infection on the global radar

Today is World HTLV-1 Day. Researchers are driving the global push to find a treatment for this virus that is affecting remote Indigenous communities.

There’s no treatment or cure for HTLV-1, a virus related to HIV that causes a disproportionally high infection rate in remote Aboriginal communities.

HTLV-1 – Human T-cell lymphtrophic virus – is from a similar family of viruses as HIV, but its pattern of disease is very different.

While most people do not become sick from the virus, infection can lead to neurological diseases and blood cancers. Infection can also suppress the immune system, although how this works needs further study.

In Alice Springs hospitals, 34 per cent of Indigenous people have tested positive for HTLV-1, and this figure is almost 50 per cent in older men.

Following a special symposium on HTLV-1 at the Global Virus Network’s 9th International Meeting at the Doherty Institute in 2017, University of Melbourne Professor Damian Purcell was one of a team of researchers and advocates from across the globe to pen an open letter to the World Health Organization, published in The Lancet, calling for an end to HTLV-1.

“There’s an opportunity to prevent transmission of HTLV-1, but it’s not even on the table in Australia or globally as a major issue,” says Professor Purcell.

In addition to his advocacy for more research on this important virus, Professor Purcell is also studying the virus and pursuing treatments and the potential of a vaccine for HTLV-1.

Research conducted by Professor Purcell and his team has found that the virus infecting Aboriginal people is a unique strain, and they’ve identified opportunities to develop preventative drugs.

“We’ve got the first signs that some of the newer HIV drugs can also prevent transmission of HTLV in a mouse model, but we need to find out more,” says Professor Purcell.

“We’ve also been able to identify that infected patients can harbour powerful antibodies that are able to block the infection process. That tells me we have the potential to develop a monoclonal antibody that can prevent transmission.”

Professor Purcell is part of a $4.2 million long-term study funded by the Commonwealth Government, which will investigate the proportion of people in Indigenous communities with HTLV-1 infection. The researchers will study what percentage of cells are infected with HTLV-1 and if the amount of virus is related to poorer health outcomes or even death.

“We need to offer men and women in remote Australia the same opportunities that people living with HIV have been given in preventing a virus that could alter their health significantly.”

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