Search for HIV/AIDS cure gaining momentum


For over 30 years, research scientists around the world have been battling the global pandemic that has since claimed millions of lives.

Following years of painstaking research, scientists were able to curtail HIV/AIDS through life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that today serve the majority of the 34 million people living with the virus across the globe.

And the prevention of mother-to-child transmission remains, probably the major breakthrough in the human quest to find a cure for HIV, a lentivirus that causes the lethal disease AIDS with no cure at present.

Great progress has been made to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, with more than 850 000 infants being saved from the virus infection between 2005 and 2012, according to a recent UNICEF report.

The new report on children and AIDS released ahead of the World AIDS Day showed that some 260 000 children were newly infected with HIV last year, compared to 540 000 in 2005.

Having managed to contain the pandemic through life prolonging ARVs, scientists across the globe now have set their sight on finding a cure for AIDS.

There are instances of patients having been successfully cured of HIV/AIDS, which surely is nothing short of a miracle. For example, Timothy Ray Brown, better known as the 'Berlin Patient' was the first person to be cured.

But one may be forgiven for saying Brown's cure was accidental because he got healed after undergoing a bone-marrow transplant for leukaemia in 2007, which apparently made his immune system resistant to the virus.

The second well-documented case of a cure is that of ‘Mississippi Baby’. The baby, born with HIV, has been successfully cured after being treated with an aggressive regimen of ARVs just after birth two years ago.

Prior to the XIX International AIDS Conference that was held in Washington, DC, in July 2012, leading minds in HIV/AIDS research announced the first comprehensive strategy aimed at pursuing new leads and addressing hurdles to a cure.

And during the conference that attracted more than 20 000 participants from around the world, finding a cure for HIV/AIDS was the main topic of discussion.

The theme of the conference was “Turning the tide together”, which emphasised the decisive actions needed in today's defining phase in the pandemic. 

And more than a year after the pronouncement, British scientists have announced a major breakthrough in the quest to find a cure for HIV.

This announcement, though still in early stages, gives hope to millions of people who are infected by the virus worldwide, and dependent on ARVs that until now have only managed to stop the virus from multiplying.

Scientists and clinical researchers from five leading British universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and King's College) are planning to start a new clinical trial in 2014 to test a possible cure for HIV ‑ the virus that causes AIDS.

In the trial, one group of patients will be administered with a short course of Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors (HDAC) and an HIV vaccine alongside Antiretroviral Therapy (ART), while the other group will get ART with placebos.

HDAC are used for cancer treatment and have been shown to reactivate dormant HIV in the laboratory.

As part of the trial, the researchers are developing an improved method for detecting latency, which has been one of the difficulties in measuring the success of therapeutic approaches.

According to reports, trials will begin by testing out the new pharmaceuticals on a group of 50 patients, who are in the early stages of HIV infection.

However, the researchers have warned that they will not know the true extent of the effectiveness vaccine until 2017.

Nonetheless, the collaborative effort being led by John Frater of Oxford University and Sarah Fidler of Imperial College, London expects the trial to demonstrate that a cure is feasible. 

Frater was quoted in the media explaining that while the treatment is still very much in its infancy, successful trials could indicate a potential cure for HIV in future.

The expert explained that efforts to cure HIV in the past have been hindered by the virus's ability to lie dormant inside blood cells without being detected, adding that the new therapy to be tested in the trial will combine standard antiretroviral drugs with two new weapons, including a drug that reactivates dormant HIV and a vaccine that induces the immune system to destroy the infected cells.

“We will test if we can reduce the number of HIV-infected cells in these patients. 

If we can, it will prove in principle that this strategy could work as a cure” Frater said.

December 2013
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