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Removing HIV With Laser Beams: The Sci-Fi Treatment That Just Might Work

Might people with HIV one day go to their doctor and have their HIV obliterated with laser beams?

As far-fetched as it sounds, it’s an idea that actually is in the works. Patience Mthunzi recently described how she is working with lasers in the hopes of one day curing HIV.

In this 18-minute TED Talk presented in March in Vancouver, Mthunzi explains how she already is testing her idea. In test tube and petri dish experiments, cells soaking in solutions containing antiretroviral drugs are pierced with a tiny laser. The cells open up, swallow the medication and close right back up, Mthunzi reported in her talk.

Mthunzi, a research group leader at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, said the current method of taking HIV medications by pill leads to too much dilution of the powerful drugs. The pills go through the stomach and the intestines before getting to HIV’s ultimate hiding places, such as the lymph nodes, nervous system and lungs, she argues. Along the way, the drugs are “notorious” for causing side effects, she said.

“These drugs are good for lowering the virus in the blood and increasing CD4 counts,” she said. But they are bad in terms of efficiently getting “to where the virus is sleeping and not readily delivered in the blood.”

She believes that if lasers can be used in dentistry and in the treatment of diabetes, they “can be used for almost anything imaginable.”

Mthunzi said she needs more money to keep her research going, but believes HIV could be treated inside the human body with “three-headed devices” consisting of a laser, a camera, and a sprinkler to deliver medication at the site of infection.”

Of course, finding every little place where HIV may be hiding has long been a challenge to scientists. But in another recent development, researchers at the International AIDS Symposium conference in Vancouver presented a new “molecular microscope” method that can actually find HIV hiding both inside and outside cells. In a piece reported in Science, Richard Koup, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Md., who was not involved in the research, said “One day if successful this technology can lead to complete eradication of HIV in the body.”

In describing her own work, Mthunzi used almost exactly the same sound bite. “One day if successful this technology can lead to complete eradication of HIV in the body.”

Patience got her PhD in physics from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, according to her TED bio. In 2012, she was named one of 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes magazine.