50 patients in the UK have undergone experimental treatment for HIV, in a bid to activate dormant T-cells and eradicate hidden reservoirs of the virus
HIV will go down in history as one of the more insidious viruses humanity has encountered, with a death toll over 35 million. HIV infection was once a death sentence, leading to a drawn out, extremely unpleasant death as a result of AIDS. Now patients can expect a normal life span as long as they continue to take antiretroviral drugs. These are not entirely without side effects, but the virus is effectively controlled (at least in developed nations that can afford to supply the drugs). This cocktail of antiretroviral agents blocks viral replication, but it's sadly unable to eradicate the virus altogether. Stragglers can take up residence in particular cells, hiding from surveillance and lingering on; able to mount a new invasion if the patient stops taking these drugs.
A new strategy
With support from the NHS, researchers in the UK are attempting a novel approach to treating HIV. The strategy involves first familiar treatment with antiretroviral drugs, confining the virus to dormant infected cells. The second, and novel step, involves a targeted activation of these cells. The researchers hope that this will enable the host's immune system to pick up and destroy any remnants of the virus for good.
“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 research is certainly exciting, and the first treated patient currently tests HIV. However, while the theory is sound we'll have to wait for continuing results as the patients are tracked over a prolonged period. Levels of the virus are frequently imperceptible in patients taking antiretroviral drugs already, so testing virus free doesn't really mean anything unless it remains so, without drugs, for a period of years.
Hope for the future
Curiously there may already be a cure of sorts for HIV; a bone marrow transplant. A particular mutation in the gene CCR5, prevalent in about 1% of Northern European populations, essentially impairs HIV's ability to infect immune cells by closing their entry point. Patients that receive a transplant from individuals with this rare mutation appear to be protected from the virus, although it may linger on in their blood and continue to remain infectious.
We'll have to remain patient and hope that this new development continues to yield good news. In any case, with advances in immunotherapy tactics we're making tangible progress with 'tricky' viruses. This could yield further benefits when it comes to aging, as certain viruses like CMV can linger in a similar manner; causing numerous problems and accelerating immune system aging. If this strategy proves effective we may be able to adopt a similar approach to other stragglers.
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