19 Jul 2014

HIV cure search – there’s now a feeling it WILL happen rather than it MIGHT happen

There was a time when the word ‘cure’ was never used in relation to HIV. It was thought to be too elusive, too unachievable. But something changed in the past decade.

It was not that there have been any major breakthroughs. On the contrary, there have been setbacks – such as the recent news that the Mississippi baby, believed to be free of the virus after being given treatment within hours of birth, is now showing signs of it and is once again receiving antiretroviral drugs.


Yet the scientists involved in HIV research now firmly believe that a cure is possible, that this an area that is moving at a faster pace than many had ever imagined.

At the 2014 Moving Towards an HIV Cure Symposium, being held alongside the 20th International Aids Conference in Melbourne, there was a feeling of optimism in the room.

The President of the International Aids Society (IAS), Professor Francoise Sinoussi-Barre, a co-discoverer of the virus, said ‘there is a great deal of scientific excitement’.

That there is a need for a cure is obvious. In 2012, there were 2.3 million new infections reported and 1.5 million deaths. And although more people than ever are receiving antiretroviral drugs (ARTs), they are not without their problems.

As Dr Steven Deeks, co-chair of the symposium said, they have to be taken daily, for life. And they have side-effects.

There needs to be, he said, a scalable cure. That is one that is affordable for all nations.

The briefing document for the symposium had been printed before the news of the Mississippi baby (in fact now a four-year-old) had come through, so it still says at least one infant infected with HIV who was treated immediately after birth has no signs of the virus.

We now know that not to be true. But it adds to the growing knowledge on how the virus might hide – and its latency.

So, the areas of research looking most interesting are directed at viral persistence and how to ‘flush’ the virus out, find that every last part of it, trigger the immune system to recognise it and then treat it, possibly with cancer drugs.

Equally important is the work on a vaccine, which will again help the immune system recognise the virus and fight it.

Nobody is willing to put a timescale on all of this, of course. There have been too many false starts but there is also a feeling that it WILL happen rather than it MIGHT happen.

Follow Victoria Macdonald on Twitter: @vsmacdonald

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