There have been some fantastic steps in the bid to tackle HIV and AIDS. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug that dramatically cuts the risk of contracting the virus, has had an incredible impact on preventing people from getting HIV in the first place, while antiretrovirals (ARTs) prevent the virus from multiplying if it is contracted.
But the holy grail of a vaccine for either HIV or AIDS, which would allow people to stop taking drugs altogether, has remained out of reach. Now, a team of scientists have revealed that in a limited trial they have achieved a tentative success in doing just this, giving HIV-positive people a vaccine against the virus, which has allowed them to stop taking drugs. The research was presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle.
The small trial started three years ago, when 25 people who had recently contracted the virus were given two new vaccines and then placed on ARTs until last year. This is when 15 of the remaining patients were given another dose of one vaccine plus an anti-cancer drug, before getting a final booster of the vaccine and taken off the ARTs. The patients were then monitored to see if the level of HIV in their systems increased, which has happened in two-thirds of the participants so far .
This, however, means that a third (5 individuals) were taken off all ART drugs, with their own immune system preventing the HIV from replicating. While the virus is still present in their systems, one patient has been off all drugs for a full seven months, leading the researchers to tentatively call the vaccine a “functional cure", at least for some. While the study conducted was incredibly small, and the number who were able to safely go off ARTs even smaller, the proof of concept of this treatment is important.
Despite the huge amounts of research that go into curing HIV, progress has been slow. If this could help even a third of people who are suffering from AIDS, then it could still be incredibly beneficial, especially considering that this is the first trial to ever prevent HIV from replicating without the use of drugs.
The reason why it had a limited success, though, is still not understood, and neither is how long the protection lasts for. So far, one patient has managed to go seven months without drugs, so only time will tell if this treatment will be beneficial in the long term. The team will now examine what has gone on in more detail to see if they can make the treatment more straightforward.