Targetting human proteins rather than the ever-mutating viruses may offer a more effective way to treat HIV-positive people whose bodies have built a resistance to drugs currently used to keep them healthy, new research suggests.

“Most HIV drugs target the virus,” said I-Chueh Huang, Assistant Professor at Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California in the US.

“But the virus is not stable; it always mutates — problematic because the virus can become resistant to effective drugs,” Huang added.

His lab has pinpointed a protein variant that can be targetted to prevent the human immunodeficiency virus from harming HIV-positive individuals.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a first step toward enabling doctors to direct the body’s own immune system to better fend off disease.

This method differs from the more traditional method of targetting viruses that may eventually become resistant to specific medical therapies.

“Much more research needs to be done, but we may have identified a new approach to treating acute HIV infection,” Huang said.

About 37 million people worldwide have HIV and 20 million received antiviral therapy in 2016, according to the World Health Organisation.

Although most people are doing well with HIV-suppressing treatment, a growing number of people are experiencing drug resistance.

The researchers found that a protein variant nicknamed “Delta 20,” an immune system protein, suppresses the most damaging HIV strains, X4, by preventing the virus from infecting cells.

“Our finding will not help develop a vaccine because the focus is on innate immunity rather than the virus,” Huang said.

“Perhaps one day scientists will create medicine that, like ‘HIV cocktails,’ have to be taken indefinitely. But the new treatment may be more effective because it is harder for viruses to escape the body’s defenses,” Huang added.