The long and winding road: A step-by-step trek towards an HIV cure

The news just keeps rolling in!

After the recent revelation that a Mississippi baby seems to have been functionally cured of AIDS, it seems that the same treatment may work in adults.

Results from a recent study conducted by the Pasteur Institute in Paris showed that early treatment appears to have put HIV in what seems to be permanent remission in 14 adults.

The 14 people were part of a cohort of 70 examined by Asier Saez-Cirion of the Pasteur Institute’s unit for regulation of retroviral infections. Examining the effect of early treatment, Sáez-Cirión treated the group with antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) between 35 days and 10 weeks after infection. This is much sooner than people are normally treated, reinforcing the idea that early treatment may be a vital part of an HIV cure.

According to NewScientist, all the participant’s drug regimens had been interrupted at some point, some willingly, some because of participation in other studies.

Before we all get our hopes up too high and scream “Hurray! Cure!” it must be pointed out that most of the patients involved in the Pasteur Institute’s study relapsed when off their meds. But 14 of them – four women and 10 men – did not.  Like in the case of the “miracle baby,” the virus was not completely eradicated – traces of it can still be found in the bloodstream. It was simply weakened enough for the body to fight it on its own, without drugs. Therefore the term “functional cure.”

Most of the adults have been off medication for at least seven years. One of them has been off them for 10. “It’s not eradication,” Sáez-Cirión told NewScientist, “but they can clearly live without the pills for a very long period of time.”

The report adds that Sáez-Cirión was adamant out that rapid treatment doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, most people don’t know they are HIV positive until the virus has fully infiltrated the body. Nonetheless, the new study supports the conclusion that early intervention is important.

“There are three benefits to early treatment,” Sáez-Cirión said. “It limits the reservoir of HIV that can persist, limits the diversity of the virus and preserves the immune response to the virus that keeps it in check.”

According to Sáez-Cirión 5-15% of patients may be functionally cured by attacking the virus soon after infection. That’s still 5-15% more than was deemed possible a month ago. As the Gizmodo pointed out, “There will not be a silver bullet for HIV. This is what progress looks like: science fighting the virus off bit by bit.”

The discovery is an important achievement for our superheroes in lab coats and plastic protection glasses.

Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust, agrees.

“This just underlines the importance of people being testing and diagnosed early, Currently half of people living with HIV in the UK are diagnosed late – indicating that they are likely to have been infected for five years,” she told the BBC, adding that this was “exciting times “ in the progress towards a cure.

We wholeheartedly agree.

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