Three breakthroughs on HIV this week; is cure around the corner?

Critical trial for early aggressive treatment of HIV+ babies set to begin in three months

By Vani Manocha
Published: Sunday 09 March 2014

imageFrom babies to adults, all those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV can now hope to be rid of the disease. From a newborn being cured of the deadly disease to monkeys responding positively to a drug, there is good news from different quarters that has renewed hope for those fighting against HIV/AIDS. A look at three major studies that came to light this week:
Early drug treatment in babies

Researchers in California have shown that treating a baby, carrying HIV at birth, with antiretroviral drugs can lead to remission of the virus. A young girl, whose identity has not been released and who was born in Long Beach in California about nine months ago was administered with adult level doses of three antiretroviral drugs as early as four hours after birth. The case report was presented at the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston this week and the girl was considered “cured”.

As a precautionary measure, in previous treatment regimes, HIV-positive babies have received lower doses of only two of these drugs several weeks after birth.

Last year, a child was revealed to be "functionally cured" of HIV after using a similar treatment programme. A "functional cure" is when the presence of the virus is so small that lifelong treatment is not necessary and standard clinical tests cannot detect the virus in the blood.

Studies where the babies have started treatment after six weeks have seen the virus return after two years. According to reports, the critical trial for early aggressive treatment is set to begin in three months, with 60 HIV-infected babies to be monitored.

Gene therapy for adults

A clinical trial has shown that a gene-editing technique can be safe and effective in humans. For the first time, researchers have used enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) to target and destroy a gene in the immune cells of 12 people with HIV, increasing their resistance to the virus. The findings were published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The study is believed to be inspired by the case of Timothy Brown (also known as “Berlin patient”), the first person to recover from HIV. In 2007, Brown had his immune system wiped out during leukaemia treatment and was, therefore, transfused with donor bone-marrow stem cells. These cells carried a mutation in a gene called CCR5, which forms a protein needed (found on T-cells and used) by HIV to enter cells. People who have a mutation to this gene are resistant to HIV.
Some good news on the preventive front

In a study published in journal Science, researchers have shown that a slow experimental drug, named GSK744, when injected into monkeys was able to confer temporary protection from HIV infection. The study was conducted by researchers at Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York and drug-maker GlaxoSmithKline. The monkeys were repeatedly exposed to HIV. The drug stops a native enzyme that HIV uses to insert its foreign DNA into the human genome. This prevents the virus from replicating.
The experimental drug has only been tested for prevention in monkeys, but it completely protected them from infection in two studies reported at an AIDS conference this week.

Will any of these become effective cures?
HIV became all too well known when it was discovered over 30 years ago. Nearly 40 million people are currently afflicted with the disease throughout the world. It can be spread through contact with blood, semen or vaginal fluid of a person infected with HIV.

Though none of the new treatments is said to be a complete replacement for current antiretroviral drugs, they are all considered to be different promising strategies.

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