HIV Cure Called 'Major Scientific Priority'

Even as recently as a decade ago, an HIV diagnosis could have been equivalent to a death sentence. But now, researchers are working to make a cure for the virus a reality.

Even as recently as a decade ago, an HIV diagnosis could have been equivalent to a death sentence. But now, researchers are working to make a cure for the virus a reality that could save millions of lives.

In a recent study, Sharon Lewin of Australia’s Monash University called finding an HIV cure “a major scientific priority." In a review published in The Lancet, Monash and her team concluded that, due to advancements in treatment, HIV-infected patients are living considerably longer than they did 10 years ago. According to the review, new HIV infections dropped to 2.3 million in 2012 from 3.3 million in 2005, while AIDS-related deaths — which peaked at 2.3 million 2005 – dipped to 1.6 million in 2012.

Lewin said several factors contributed to the drop in both datasets.

“These ‘biomedical prevention’ strategies have had a major impact in reducing the number of new infections,” Lewin said of steps like using clean needles and condoms. “One of the most important advances has been that treating an HIV-infected person with anti-HIV drugs dramatically reduces their infectiousness. Therefore, with more people on effective treatment, we are seeing less transmission.”

As with many viruses, the creation of a vaccine could help the process of finding a cure, but Lewin said that step has not been reached yet, in part because people can create ineffective antibodies during their treatment.

“However, a small number of people make very good antibody responses to HIV — what is called ‘broadly neutralizing antibodies,’” Lewin said.

The head of the school’s Department of Infectious Diseases said those antibodies can help people combat and overcome the virus, and “we now have very smart ways to make these antibodies using test tube models, which gives hope for new effective vaccines against HIV.”

The results are just one step in what Lewin admits is a long process, but one that could have a powerful ending.

“There is a lot of work being done ... using new ways to ‘wake up’ the sleeping virus to make it visible to drugs and the immune system,” she said. “This is one approach that one day might lead to a cure.”