Scientists see early progress on potential HIV cure

Red ribbons are the universal symbol of awareness and support for people with HIV/AIDS.
Red ribbons are the universal symbol of awareness and support for people with HIV/AIDS.

Image: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

A team of British scientists may be on the brink of developing a cure for HIV.

Researchers recently tested their pioneering therapy on the first of 50 participants in a clinical trial, The Sunday Times reported. Early tests on the first patient, a 44-year-old British social worker, show the virus is undetectable in the man’s blood. 

“This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV,” Mark Samuels of Britain’s National Institute for Health Research told The Sunday Times, Britain’s largest-selling national Sunday newspaper.

“We are exploring the real possibility of curing HIV,” Samuels added. “This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days, but the progress has been remarkable.”

Britain’s National Health Service is backing the clinical trials, which are the result of a collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London.

Prince Harry has blood taken for an HIV test during a visit to Burrell Street Sexual Health Clinic in London, July 14, 2016. (He tested negative.)

Prince Harry has blood taken for an HIV test during a visit to Burrell Street Sexual Health Clinic in London, July 14, 2016. (He tested negative.)

Image: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The trial’s first patient, who said he was gay but did not give his name, said he participated in the trial to help others with the disease.

HIV, which stands for “human immunodeficiency virus,” is mainly transmitted through s.e.xual acts or by using infected needles. The virus weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important T-cells that fight disease and infection.

About 36.7 million people are living with HIV worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Around 2.1 million new cases were added in 2015, with nearly two-thirds of new infections occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa, the CDC reported. 

If left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Around 1.1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses last year.

Image: U.S. Centers for disease control and prevention

While antiretroviral therapies can help control HIV’s effects on people’s immune system, no effective cure exists yet.

The British researchers’ potential cure would mirror the effects of antiretroviral therapies in some ways. 

In untreated patients, the HIV hijacks T-cells and turns them into virus-producing spawn that infect other T-cells. Antiretroviral therapies target and suppress this activity, but they still leave millions of dormant, infected T-cells lying in wait throughout the body.

The new treatment would both suppress infections and kill the reservoir of dormant cells, The Sunday Times reported. 

Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician and professor at Imperial College London, said medical tests of the potentially breakthrough therapy would continue for the next five years.

“It has worked in the laboratory and there is good evidence it will work in humans too,” Fidler told the British newspaper. “But we must stress that we are still a long way from any actual therapy.”


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