Hope or Hype: Has the UK Discovered an HIV Cure?

A new HIV treatment under trial in the UK is giving doctors hope after it appeared to eradicate the virus in early tests. However, it is important to proceed with caution, as other supposedly effective cures have been produced with limited application and success.

An unnamed 44-year old is the first British man to complete a new two-stage treatment devised by teams from five leading UK universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London. 

Supported by NHS funding, the pioneering treatment uses a slightly different approach than previous treatments. Namely, it acts to suppress the virus, while also attempting to destroy the dormant cells that can lead to virus reemergence.

Mark Samuels of the National Institute for Health Research Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure told the Sunday Times

This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV. We are exploring the real possibility of curing HIV. This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days but the progress has been remarkable.

The new treatment utilizes a vaccine to boost the immune system’s ability to find the virus. When the immune system was primed, researchers then used a drug known as Vorinosat.

Vorinosat prompts infected cells to produce new HIV proteins. The immune system recognizes these proteins and will begin attacking the virus.

The unnamed man who has completed this treatment now has no detectable levels of the virus, but it is too soon to hail this as a “cure.”

To understand why, we need to know a bit about the virus.

Why is HIV so difficult to cure?

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a difficult enemy to fight due to its effects on the human body.  

The body needs white blood cells to fight off infection. HIV targets what are known as CD4+ cells or T-cells, which are vital to our immune system. But the virus uses those same cells to replicate itself, preventing the immune system from identifying HIV as a threat.

While antiretrovirals can control the virus circulating in the blood stream and prevent it from replicating, HIV remains in cells. HIV’s ability to survive in the body has proved extremely difficult to fight.

However, in the past few years, our understanding of HIV has increased significantly. In several cases, doctors have even documented ”functional cures.”

No cure, but progress continues

At least one newborn child has been functionally cured of HIV, but those circumstances did not offer hope for a wider cure. Instead, the case only pointed to the fact that aggressive antiretroviral treatment might help eradicate the virus in newborns.

HIV was previously thought to have been functionally cured in a man named Timothy Brown. Also known as the “Berlin Patient,” Brown received a bone marrow transplant in 2007 as part of his leukemia treatment. Afterward, his viral load became undetectable.

Brown continued to show no symptoms of the virus for several years, raising hopes that bone marrow transplants could provide clues to alternative treatment avenues, like a stem-cell therapy.

Unfortunately, in 2012 highly sensitive tests revealed that Brown still had possible traces of the virus, though he continues to live symptom-free.

Researchers continue to explore how Brown’s leukemia treatment helped to defang the virus. All the while, doctors are monitoring Brown to see if the virus will eventually reemerge.

It’s worth noting though that Brown’s “effective cure” has never been replicated.

This latest research is tantalizing. The first man to complete the new therapy is reportedly doing well. However we won’t know for some time yet — perhaps several years — whether this treatment will yield a long-awaited HIV breakthrough.

The clinical trial results are scheduled to be published in 2018, and until then, the medical world will be watching closely.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

226 comments

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Drbaba O.4 days ago

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.23 days ago

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.1 months ago

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.1 months ago

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Past Member
Past Member 8 months ago

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