New research by an international team finds that Ciclopirox, an antifungal cream used all over the world, completely eradicates HIV – the virus that leads to AIDS – in cultured cells, and the virus does not return when the treatment stops.

The study also found Deferiprone, a systemic drug used to remove excess iron from the body in people who have beta-thalassaemia major, has the same effect.

The researchers, including a team from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, write about their findings in a paper published online this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

As both drugs are already approved for use in humans – both in the US and Europe – the researchers say this means the normally lengthy process of drug development should be less costly and time-consuming, bringing closer the prospect of global elimination of HIV and AIDS.

Viruses thrive by invading cells and using their resources. The cells of our body have a natural way of stopping this – they kill themselves. When the immune system detects the presence of a virus, it triggers a cell process called apoptosis that makes infected cells commit suicide.

But the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has a way around this: it disables the host cell’s ability to commit suicide, allowing it to continue to exploit cellular resources to fuel its growth and spread.

In this new study, the researchers found the drugs work against HIV in two ways: they inhibit expression of certain HIV genes, and they also jam up the host cell’s mitochondria, the little powerhouses that supply them with energy. Both these effects reactivate the cell’s suicide pathway.

Healthy cells not infected with HIV were not affected. And remarkably, the virus did not bounce back when treatment stopped.

While previous research has already found Ciclopirox and Deferiprone can stop HIV by inhibiting some of the virus’ genes, this new study is the first to show an additional route to reactivation of cell suicide via mitochondrial interference.

Thanks to these previous results confirmed in this new study, and the fact the systemic drug is already known to be safe in humans, testing the effectiveness of Deferiprone against HIV has already moved directly from cell culture to human trial in South Africa, bypassing the need for animal testing.

Ciclopirox is not approved for systemic use, as it is a topical cream. But the discovery that both drugs, each well-tolerated in humans, are also able to eradicate HIV in cell culture renews hope that HIV and AIDS will one day, in the not too distant future, be wiped from the face of the Earth.

The findings follow other good news released this week – as world leaders meet at the United Nations General Assembly to review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, UNAIDS reports a 52% reduction in new HIV infections among children and a combined 33% reduction among adults and children since 2001.