UPDATE: The lead scientist in the Danish HIV study, Ole Søgaard, now claims he was misquoted in the original interview with The Telegraph suggesting that an HIV cure was only months away. He says that in the next few months, the preliminary results of the study will be released, but that a viable cure is likely years away. This research still represents an important step in making HIV treatment accessible to ordinary people.
A group of researchers at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark have announced that they’ve started clinical trials testing a revolutionary new approach to fighting HIV. While there have been a few major breakthroughs in recent years — including an infant and an adult man who have apparently been “cured” of the disease — these cases had little practical impact on the lives of most people living with HIV.
In the case of the baby in Mississippi, treatment was started immediately after the baby was born, before doctors had even confirmed that she was HIV positive. This was fantastic news for newborns with HIV positive mothers, but not very helpful to anyone already living with the virus.
The other case involved a patient who underwent a bone marrow transplant, which apparently cured him of HIV. Again, not a great option for the majority of people already living with HIV. It’s expensive, painful, dangerous, and of course, bone marrow donors are hard to come by — particularly those with the HIV-resistant genetic mutation this donor had.
This is precisely why this new Danish trial is so exciting. Instead of treatments that may only be able to help or cure a select few, this new approach may be able to help anyone infected with HIV. The cost savings to patients and healthcare systems around the world could be huge — instead of taking drugs to keep the virus in check for the rest of their lives, patients could simply have a one-time round of treatment and go back to living a normal life.
Essentially, the treatment releases the virus from its hiding place within human DNA, bringing it to the surface of a cell. At that point, the body’s own immune defenses, boosted with immunotherapy treatments, can destroy the virus. So far, 15 people have been treated with this technique, with research set to expand in coming months.
Still, while scientists may identify a promising possible cure in 2013, it may be as many as 5 years before it becomes widely available outside of trials. When it does become accessible to everyone, doctors and scientists will likely need to warn people that a treatment is not the same as a vaccine. Preventing HIV by practicing safe sex and avoiding risky behaviors will always be a better deal for your body and your bank account.
Photo credit: Tom Hart via Flickr