A team of researchers in Hong Kong has announced an important milestone in their development of a “functional cure” for HIV, the virus that causes the deadly condition of AIDS.
A team led by professor Chen Zhiwei of Hong Kong University’s AIDS Institute published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Reuters reported Friday. Their discovery, tested successfully in mice, points to a universal antibody that could control the virus and destroy infected cells.
Previous attempts at a cure or vaccine have been hampered by the many varieties of the virus, making wide-scale treatment difficult. But this antibody? “It works for all of them,” Chen said.
By a “functional cure,” Chen’s group means the amount of the virus would be kept so low in the body as to be undetectable, so long as patients keep getting regular injections of the antibody, which Chen predicts might only be necessary four times a year. If patients stop taking the antibody, symptoms could return as the virus proliferates through their body.
Only one person has ever been truly cured of HIV: a Seattle man named Timothy Brown known as “the Berlin Patient.” Brown received a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia in 2007 which, combined with a stem cell transplant from an HIV-immune donor, led to his being declared free of the disease in 2008 — this despite not having taken antiretroviral drugs for the prior year, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
Chen and his team say they hope to begin clinical trials in three to five years, Reuters noted.
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, attacks the immune system’s white blood cells, which form the body’s natural defense against illness. “A person is said to have AIDS [Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome] when their immune system is too weak to fight off infection,” Avert noted. “This is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death.”
Present treatment for HIV is antiretroviral therapy or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which can effectively control the spread of the disease. One drug, Truvada, which became available in 2014, claims to be 99 percent effective at preventing HIV infection when taken daily, although a New York Times investigation into the claim suggested that number might be as low as 92 percent — which is still much, much better than zero. However, like Chen’s team’s projected “functional cure,” such drugs must also be taken regularly, in this case daily, in order to be effective.
Another attempt at a cure was reported at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston in March where Dan Barouch of Beth Israel Hospital spoke about “an unprecedented advance in controlling HIV,” the American Council on Science and Health reported at the time. By combining an antibody with an experimental, direct-acting antiretroviral drug, remarkable results were seen in rhesus macaques that had been infected with an HIV-like virus specific to monkeys. Five of the 11 monkeys remained “virus free” 168 days after the drug combination was stopped. The ACSH noted that Barouch’s tests provided “proof of concept,” although a cure is still years away.
The first known case of HIV occurred in the Belgian Congo in 1959, although it is speculated to have been circulating around Leopoldville/Kinshasa since the 1920s.
Homophobia kept research into HIV and AIDS restricted for decades due to the disease’s prevalence among gay men and transgender women, being nicknamed ‘the gay plague” as it came into prominence in the US in the 1980s. It was even mislabeled “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” for six months in 1982. Outrage over that name led to the adoption of AIDS that year, and the name HIV was created in 1986 after its specific etiology was uncovered.
In countries of the former Soviet Union, cultural conservativism and intravenous drug use has contributed heavily to the HIV epidemic and also in Africa, where the Roman Catholic Church’s hostility to the use of condoms has helped to fan the flames of an epidemic that over 25 million people are presently living with, reported Avert.
Chen noted similar challenges in China, where 850,000 are estimated to have HIV. “Governments are being very slow to implement programs here… So just because a treatment becomes available, doesn’t mean that people will get it, or that it will have an impact.”
Worldwide, 35 million people have died of AIDS complications, the Independent reported.