HIV is a major global public health issue. According to Avert, over 36.7 million people were infected and were still living with it (including 1.8 million children). Those affected with this illness were left with constant fear of never getting well. Moreover, antiretroviral drugs (ART) were invented and made available to the market. This medicine has to be taken each and every day to block the virus from spreading and causing damage to their immune system.
While this might sound better than none at all, this medicine is very expensive, time-consuming (this has to be taken over a lifetime) and can cause nasty side effects. And if stopped, the virus can quickly and easily re-emerge.
Well, apparently, there might be another solution!
Two vaccines developed by Tomas Hanke and his colleagues at the University of Oxford were tested by Beatriz Mothe of the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute and colleagues three years ago to 24 people recently diagnosed with HIV. Those patients were also initially given ART. This year, 15 of them were each given another booster dose of one of the vaccines, followed by three doses of a cancer drug that has shown potential for flushing HIV out of hiding called romidepsin. Lastly, each was then given another vaccine booster and was asked to stop taking ART.
10 of those participants had the virus rapidly bouncing back, which forced them to return to taking the drug. But, 5 of these participants are still currently free of detectable virus since their immune systems were able suppress it unaided. Although it is early days with four of them free of HIV for six, 14, 19 and 21 weeks, respectively, one person has been off of any medication for seven months now!
It isn’t clear why two-thirds of the group didn’t respond to the therapy. But still, this is good news! This could be the first treatment to ever stop the virus from replicating without the daily use of ART. However, the effect of this in the future isn’t quite yet certain since previous treatments have also appeared to “cure” people with HIV only for the virus to later return. On a positive note, unlike those treatments, this method is a “combo” attack: priming the immune system to fight HIV through vaccination and flushing out any hidden dormant virus through a cancer drug, which could shed light to a really possible cure.
Perhaps we can wait a little longer and see where this goes. But with these results, I think we’re on the right path to removing HIV in the world!