In March this year, the BBC reported that a male patient in the UK had been cured of HIV after undergoing a stem cell transplant.
This was the second case of a person with HIV going into remission after such a procedure.
It was also one of many claims of ‘HIV cures’ that have excited the healthcare industry over the years.
But despite huge efforts by researchers, billions of dollars in research and occasional successes, HIV/AIDS remains an incurable fatal disease.
The upside of all this research is that doctors are now able to extend the lifespan of HIV patients, usually by up to 43 years by proper management and therapy.
But it’s not the same as a cure, or even better, a vaccine.
So why is it taking so long to find a cure for HIV and how far are we from it?
Here’s a rundown of the latest research and discoveries in HIV treatment.
- The case of the UK man cured through stem cell transplant is one of the latest breakthroughs. But doctors say the procedure cannot be scaled to a standard HIV treatment. However, it offers important clues that could help in the fight against HIV.
- A promising HIV vaccine is currently in a trial phase to find out whether it can effectively protect against the infection. In 2018, a study found that the vaccine triggered an immune response in humans and protected some monkeys from an infection similar to HIV.
- The response of cows to HIV could help researchers find a vaccine against the disease. In 2017, researchers discovered that cows rapidly produce antibodies that eventually neutralize almost all strains of HIV.
- Cows are not the only animals helping in the fight against HIV. Recently, researchers cured mice of HIV by using a form of anti-retroviral therapy and gene editing. The question now is whether these procedures can be used in treating HIV in humans.
- Another study currently underway involves people who are naturally resistant to HIV (yes, there are people who cannot get HIV). Researchers collect the antibodies their bodies produce in response to the virus and give them to HIV patients. The study so far has found that this type of therapy can suppress HIV for months at a time. Not quite a cure but a huge step in the right direction.
This is just a selection of the multiple efforts going on to develop an effective cure or vaccine for HIV.
At the same time, researchers are rapidly improving anti-retroviral therapy to help in the management of the disease for people already infected.
In one interesting development, GlaxoSmithKline, in collaboration with Pfizer, announced a new experimental HIV treatment that would be administered only once a month.
This would save patients the headache of taking a pill, or pills, daily.
Whatever comes next, the current achievements are impressive. What was once an assured killer has become more of a chronic disease that’s easily manageable.
Why is HIV So Hard to Cure?
All viral infections, not just HIV, are difficult to treat. That’s because they hide inside cells where they multiply out of reach of antibodies, the immune system’s defense against infections.
What makes HIB particularly troublesome to treat is that it infects the immune system itself. It hides inside CD4 cells, which help fight viral infections.
So far, scientists haven’t discovered any drug that can target HIV inside the cells. The body itself cannot reach the virus where it’s hiding.
Antiretroviral drugs can stop HIV from replicating itself, which helps control the infection. But there is always a reservoir of the virus inside cells. If treatment stops, the infection can get worse as the viral load increases.
The other reason why HIV is hard to cure is that the virus can easily mutate and become resistant to any new treatment.
There are also numerous strains of HIV, and it can be difficult to target all of them with a single drug.
Will There Ever Be a Cure for HIV?
No one knows but considering the rapid development we see in this field; there is a high probability that scientists will discover a cure or vaccine for HIV.
For now, antiretroviral therapy offers the best hope for HIV patients.
For people who are not infected, it’s essential that you take precautions to protect yourself.
- Use protection during sex. For vaginal or anal sex, use a condom. For oral sex, use a dental dam (yes, it’s possible to get HIV through oral sex though the risk is low).
- Get tested regularly. Doctors recommend yearly or twice a year testing for at-risk groups, including gay men. If you don’t want to go to your doctor, there are anonymous STD test options you can use.
- If your sexual partner has HIV, use PrEP to reduce the risk of infection. Truvada is the only approved PrEP drug in the US.