An anti-fungal foot cream is showing promise as a way to beat back the virus that causes AIDS.

In laboratory tests, the drug Ciclopirox was able to force cells infected with HIV to commit suicide. Researchers led by a team from Rutgers University outlined their experiments in a paper published in the journal PLoS ONE on Monday.

One of the key components to HIV’s takeover strategy is to undermine the body’s natural defenses. Normally, if something goes catastrophically wrong inside a cell, that cell is programmed to automatically commit suicide – a process called “apoptosis.” HIV interferes with apoptosis in the cells it infects, protecting itself, and can also induce vital immune system cells to destroy themselves.

But with Ciclopirox cream, scientists found they could restore a cell’s ability to destroy itself when infected. Ciclopirox is used by doctors to treat fungal infections all over the body, including ringworm, “jock itch” and yeast infections. In laboratory experiments with isolated cells, the team found that Ciclopirox also combats HIV in two ways. First, it blocks the activity of certain HIV genes, preventing the virus from replicating itself. It also targets the mitochondria – akin to the powerhouse – of HIV-infected cells, kickstarting apoptosis. Even 12 weeks after the researchers stopped applying the drug, the virus did not reemerge.

The researchers also had success in blocking HIV with another drug, Deferiprone. Deferiprone is a chelating agent used to treat people with the genetically inherited blood disorder beta thalassemia, where people struggle to produce the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in red blood cells.

“In contrast to current antiretrovirals, these medications therefore terminate the infection by HIV-1 of human lymphocytes in culture,” the authors wrote. “This finding suggests a general strategy for combating HIV/AIDS and potentially other infections: the therapeutic reclamation of apoptotic proficiency.”

The advantage of using drugs like Ciclopirox and Deferiprone that are already on the market is that they’ve already gone through the early-stage approvals process at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Researchers already know that the drug is safe for people to use, so they can skip animal tests and go straight to determining if the drug is effective or not. Deferiprone is already being tested in humans in South Africa as an anti-HIV agent.

Whether or not Ciclopirox can repeat the anti-HIV effects it demonstrated in cell cultures when used on people remains to be seen. Other initially promising topical creams designed to treat HIV have proved less than successful in the field. Carraguard, made from seaweed, was made to be applied to the vagina to prevent HIV from being transmitted during sex. But a large trial of the cream in more than 6,200 South African women had less-than-stellar results; scientists couldn’t prove that Carraguard was effective in preventing HIV transmission.

SOURCE: Hanauske-Abel et al., “Drug-Induced Reactivation of Apoptosis Abrogates HIV-1 Infection.” PLoS ONE published online 23 September 2013.