We’re one step closer to curing HIV
The development of a new vaccination-based therapy has showed promising results in a selected group of HIV patients, with five reported to be “virus-free”. One patient has even gone seven months without taking the once-requisite antiretroviral drugs (ART).
For those with HIV, a daily dose of ART is usually prescribed to keep the virus in check. The drug has its benefits, ensuring that HIV doesn’t run rampant in the immune system. But patients are usually expected to take it over the duration of a lifetime, and potential side effects, which include heart disease, diabetes and bone loss, can be devastating. On top of that, the drug isn’t cheap; New Scientist estimates that the cost of ART in low- to middle-income countries was $19 billion ($15 billion) in 2015 alone. In short, it’s a necessary evil, effective but costly.
A team of researchers in Barcelona has made a small but significant step in the right direction when it comes to treating – and potentially curing – the debilitating virus. The research has been quietly ongoing for three years, and came to a head this week when doctors were unable to detect HIV in five of its original 24 patients, leaving them ostensibly “virus-free”, without the need for daily ART intake.
The research was led by Dr Beatriz Mothe at the IrsiCaixa Research Institute in Barcelona, and involved a process of administering therapeutic vaccines (as opposed to preventative immunisations). The 24 people were given two vaccines each, developed by Professor Tomas Hanke at the University of Oxford. This year, 15 of the patients were given a booster of the vaccines, in conjunction with a cancer drug called romidepsin. Romidepsin is known for its capacity to bring HIV into the foreground in bodies whose symptoms are dormant, in turn prompting white blood cells in the immune system to recognise, target and destroy the virus early on.
Results were varied but promising. While the patients weren’t unanimously receptive, with 15 returning to ART after their immune systems fell victim to the virus once again, five of them found that their immune systems were able to keep control of the virus without help. What’s more, one of the patients went without ART for seven months – a remarkably long time for the immune system to fare unaided.
Mothe says the team is streamlining the process and trying to get a better understanding of the technicality behind the treatment. Speaking to New Scientist, she noted that there was still some way to go, adding triumphantly, “but we’re on the right path”. Indeed. This could herald a seminal breakthrough in the way HIV is treated worldwide, with not only enormous financial savings, but relieving sufferers from cumbersome daily medication, with all of its potentially harmful side effects.
Image: NIAID used under Creative Commons.