In what he could represent an important step toward curing HIV, a USC scientist has created a virus that hunts down HIV-infected cells.
Dr Pin Wang, of the University of Southern California, says his lentiviral vector latches onto HIV-infected cells only. It then flags them with what's called 'suicide gene therapy', allowing drugs to later target and destroy them.
"If you deplete all of the HIV-infected cells, you can at least partially solve the problem," says Wang.
He compares the process to the military practice of 'buddy lasing', in which a soldier on the ground illuminates a target with a laser in order to guide a precision bombing strike from an aircraft.
The approach has the obvious advantage that it avoids collateral damage, leaving cells that aren't infected by HIV alone - something that conventional drug treatments have not been able to manage.
So far, the lentiviral vector has only been tested in culture dishes, where it's resulted in the destruction of about 35 percent of existing HIV cells.
That may not sound like much, but if the treatment were to be used in humans, it could be repeated several times to improve its effectiveness.
One of the next steps will be to test the procedure in mice - although it's a long way from becoming a treatment in human beings.
"This is an early stage of research, but certainly it is one of the options in that direction," Wang says.