If a group of British scientists succeed, the AIDS-causing HIV virus might soon become curable, and a 44-year-old British citizen could become the first person to be completely rid of the virus.
The breakthrough is a result of a new therapy that targets the disease even in its dormant state, says a report in The Sunday Times. It is the first treatment created to track down and destroy HIV in every part of the body.
“This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV,” Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Institute for Health Research Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, told the Times.
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,” he said.
Fighting HIV has been one of the greatest challenges facing researchers, because it targets the immune system itself. It entwines with the DNA of T-cells (or T lymphocytes that play a central role in the body’s immune response) in a way that they not only ignore its presence, but begin reproducing the virus as well.
Further, the infected T-cells can lie dormant for years, reproducing the virus without detection from our bodies and activating at a time when the immune system is at its weakest.
The therapy, designed by researchers from Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London, works in two stages.
In the first step, a vaccine helps the body recognise these HIV-infected cells so it can clear them out. The second step involves a new drug called Vorinostat which activates dormant T-cells, so they too can be spotted by the immune system.
50 people have taken the trial treatment, with the British man being the first to complete it. The virus is completely undetectable in his blood as of now, but he will have to wait a few months before knowing if the it has been completely eradicated.
The unidentified individual, a social care worker in London, said, “I took part in the trial to help others as well as myself. It would be a massive achievement if, after all these years, something is found to cure people of this disease. The fact that I was a part of that would be incredible.”
This is the first treatment that aims at completely flushing the HIV virus from the body, instead of suppressing it
It has worked in the laboratory and there is good evidence it will work in humans too, but we must stress we are still a long way from any actual therapy,” said Professor Sarah Fidler, a researcher on the project. “We will continue with medical tests for the next five years and at the moment we are not recommending stopping Art but in the future depending on the test results we may explore this,” she said.
Art refers to antiretroviral therapies, which can efficiently target the reproduction of HIV virus, but cannot spot dormant infected T-cells.
Historical attempts at fighting the virus
In 2008, cancer and HIV-infected US citizen Timothy Brown became the first person to be cured of HIV.
He received a bone marrow transplant for his leukaemia, and knowing he was HIV-infected, doctors chose donor with natural immunity to the virus. Brown was cured, and doctors have found only traces of the virus in his blood, none of which can replicate.
The treatment cannot exactly be replicated as it is very expensive and can prove fatal if the receiving body rejects the transplant.
The technique, however, inspired a new line of research in the US, where scientists began using genetic editing technology to cut away the virus from cell DNA. In April this year, they announced that the treatment had ‘huge potential’ as it eliminated the virus from the cells, and protects them from reinfection too.
They said the technique could be tested on humans in three years.
HIV facts to know
According to the WHO, more than 70 million people have been infected with HIV so far and about 35 million people have died of from the virus.
In 2015, an estimated 36.7 million people were living with HIV and so far the infection remains incurable.
Currently, Art drugs have become ‘very good’ at controlling infection but patients need use the medication for life. If they stop the treatment, the virus rapidly replicates, eventually leading to the fatal AIDS disease.
HIV is most commonly contracted by anal or vaginal sex without a condom, and can also be transmitted via contaminated needles, blood and breast milk.