ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Could Rogaine, the hair regrowth medication advertised on late-night TV, be the drug that delivers the knockout punch for HIV/AIDS?
As unlikely as it sounds, Rogaine is one of several drugs identified by new research at the University of New Mexico that appears to ramp up a cell’s ability to fight HIV, the study’s lead researcher said Friday.
Other drugs that have shown early promise include albuterol, which provides fast-acting relief from asthma, and lithium, a drug used to treat depression and bipolar disorder.
“We want to find the cheap drug, relative to what a new drug would cost, and see if it can do the trick,” said Vojo Deretic, chairman of UNM’s molecular genetics and microbiology department.
UNM announced this week that the study will be funded by a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The study builds on Deretic’s earlier research with tuberculosis, another deadly pathogen that lives inside cells.
Deretic is searching for drugs that stimulate the cell’s ability to clean itself by devouring unwanted material, such as HIV.
The research focuses on a cellular process called autophagy, Greek for “self-eating.” Cells produce specialized organs called autophagosomes that act as “vacuum cleaners,” cleaning up bits of trash in the cell.
Researchers plan to test thousands of drugs in search of compounds that encourage cells to produce large numbers of autophagosomes, Deretic said.
Later in the two-year study, researchers will test combinations of the most promising drugs. “My feeling is it’s going to take two (drugs) in a combination,” he said.
A centerpiece of the research is a screening device that can produce high-resolution photographs of objects inside cells. A sophisticated computer program then counts the number of autophagosomes each cell contains.
The machine, dubbed the “Gates machine,” is housed in Deretic’s lab at UNM’s Health Sciences Center. It can “look inside the cell and see structures and quantify them,” Deretic said. “You have something that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, and this machine can put numbers to some of the dots and wiggles.”
Those “dots and wiggles” reveal a drug’s effectiveness in prompting a cell to create disease-fighting agents, he said.
The Gates Foundation’s interest in Deretic’s work stems from the economics of fighting HIV/AIDS in poor nations. Gates wants to find inexpensive alternatives to costly drug therapies common in developed countries, Deretic said.
Highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, the drug cocktail that has extended by years the lives of people infected with HIV, has performed its miracle mainly in the United States and other developed nations. Millions of people infected with HIV in developing countries can’t afford HAART drugs, which can cost up to $2,000 a month. An answer may lie in finding HIV-fighting properties among the thousands of drugs that have already earned FDA approval, Deretic said.
But the research also offers promise for people infected with HIV in the United States and other developed countries, he said.
While HAART drugs are effective at suppressing HIV, they don’t kill the virus, which remains hidden in cells. Drugs that encourage cells to produce HIV-killing agents offer promise of a cure, he said.
“What we need in the United States is something that will eradicate the virus,” he said. — This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal