Thirty years after the discovery of the first AIDS patients in the United States, scientists have begun discussing a roadmap to the cure to HIV and AIDS. The announcement has come on the eve of Sunday’s International AIDS Conference.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the Nobel laureate who co-discovered the HIV virus, speaking in a statement released by the International AIDS Society, said, “The science has been telling us for some time now that achieving a cure for HIV infection could be a realistic possibility. The time is right to take the opportunity to try and develop an HIV cure – we might regret never having tried.”
Scientists have made significant inroads in stopping the spread of the HIV virus. In the United States, for example, those who are diagnosed with HIV today see similar life-expectancies as people without HIV. Just last week, the FDA approved Truvada, which reduces the risk of HIV infection. Antiretroviral therapy has drastically cut the risk of HIV transmission.
But HIV medication currently can come with a host of side effects, including cardiovascular, bone, and cognitive issues. While HIV treatment represses the virus, even showing the disappearance of it in tests, once the medication is stopped, the virus typically comes raging back. And researchers estimate that, for every one person starting treatment, two more become infected. A total of 30 million people have died of the disease so far; 34 million are currently infected.
But scientists are spurred to action by the treatment of one man.
Last year, Timothy Ray Brown – the so-called Berlin Patient – made headlines when it became apparent that he had been cured of HIV. The procedure, in fact, was decided upon because Brown had the misfortune of being diagnosed with leukemia after having contracted the HIV virus in 1995. In a procedure that is expensive and impractical for most people, Brown underwent a blood stem cell donation from a German donor who had the gene that made him resistant to HIV. (The gene in question is the CCR5, of which the German donor lacked, and is the gateway to the HIV virus.) Brown’s immune system was also completely wiped out due to chemotherapy and replaced with that of his donor’s. After the 2007 transplant and a second 2008 transplant, Brown, who has not been taking medication for four years, tests negative in both blood and tissue tests for HIV.
Researchers hope to study various components of the disease. Some are already studying the molecular components of the virus in determining how its DNA integrates itself into the chromosomes of infected people. A study is already underway in France, analyzing how some people’s immune systems can naturally repress the virus. In this study, 200 people started treatment for the disease shortly after being diagnosed and, even after stopping treatment, the disease has no traces in their blood.
According to the International AIDS Society’s press release, they want to target the illness through “Gene therapy, Treatment Optimization and Intensification (eliminate all replication),Reversal of HIV latency (increase virus production), Immune-based Therapies (reverse pro-latency signaling), [and] Therapeutic Vaccination (to enhance host-control).”