Charities and scientists have hailed a new study from US researchers which appears to have dramatically expanded the list of potential drug targets to treat AIDS.

Using RNA interference, researchers at Harvard Medical School have identified 273 proteins that the AIDS virus exploits to enter cells and reproduce. The study, which was published in Science, is particularly notable because previously, scientists had identified only 36 human proteins that the virus uses to break into cells.

Drugs currently used to treat HIV interact directly with the virus itself, the researchers note, and it is quite simple for the rapidly mutating virus to avoid destruction by altering how it interacts with these chemicals. Patients use a cocktail of HIV inhibitors because the virus is less likely to evolve resistance to multiple drugs at the same time, but some HIV strains have still managed to evade particular treatments. These could eventually develop resistance to several drugs, especially among patients who do not adhere to their regimens.

Senior author Stephen Elledge said that “antiviral drugs are currently doing a good job of keeping people alive, but these therapeutics all suffer from the same problem, which is that you can get resistance”. Therefore, he stated, “we decided to take a different approach centred on the human proteins exploited by the virus”. The latter would not be able to mutate to overcome drugs that interact with these proteins, he added.

“This is the first whole genome screen for human proteins required by HIV, and we’re confident that it netted real results,” added co-author Abraham Brass. “Given the method, we missed some proteins, but the majority of the ones we found are highly likely to play a role in HIV propagation,” he concluded.

The study was welcomed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the USA’s largest and oldest AIDS support organisation. Its chief of medicine, Homayoon Khanlou, said that “this is fantastic work” but the clinical implications “will take much longer to realise, as these findings must be researched and further explored as possible HIV-treatment targets”.

He added that “such groundbreaking research also provides an excellent argument to move funding from AIDS vaccine trials, which have repeatedly failed, to research these promising agents”.