An experimental therapy designed to flush out the dormant traces of HIV (seen above in yellow infecting a T-cell) in the body may have cured its first patient, but time will need to tell.
A large coalition of British scientists from five of the country’s leading universities are crossing their fingers that they have accomplished the seemingly impossible — creating the first reproducible cure for HIV.
As initially reported by The Sunday Times, researchers have begun a clinical trial that will test out an experimental therapy designed to completely eradicate the virus from a person’s body. While the trial will eventually enroll 50 participants in total, the early results so far are very encouraging. The trial’s first patient, a 44-year-old British social care worker, currently has no detectable traces of the virus in his blood following treatment. However, it will take several months to determine whether this vanishing act is indeed anything more than smoke and mirrors. It will then take additional years of follow-up tests to be absolutely sure.
“This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV. We are exploring the real possibility of curing HIV,” Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Institute for Health Research Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, told The Sunday Times. “This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days but the progress has been remarkable.”
The therapy is the culmination of a treatment strategy long theorized by HIV scientists, alternatively known as “shock and kill” or “kick and kill.”
In either case, scientists have been exhaustively searching for chemicals called latency-reactivating agents that can awaken the dormant vestiges of a HIV infection driven underground by conventional antiretroviral therapy (ART). While ART has nowadays allowed people living with HIV to live near-normal lifespans by drastically reducing the amount of the virus in their body, the treatment is ultimately a constant burden — the minute someone stops taking ART, the hidden reservoirs of HIV resurrect themselves and begin mass production anew.
The two-step therapy utilized by the researchers involves a drug called Vorinostat, which has been shown in the lab to compel T-cells secretly infected by HIV into expressing viral proteins through their outer shells. This forced reappearance, it’s hoped, will allow the immune system alongside ART to flush out the virus once and for all.
“This therapy is specifically designed to clear the body of all HIV viruses, including dormant ones,” Professor Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician at Imperial College London,” told The Sunday Times. “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.”
Indeed, while the man’s blood appears free of HIV, it’s still a possibility the standard ART drugs he was given may be the real source of the defeat. ART regularly reduces patients’ HIV viral loads to seemingly undetectable levels during treatment so it will take time to confirm whether the virus is forever gone. Even then, the clinical trial — with its remaining 49 participants — will have to run its full course and be properly vetted by independent researchers before anything can be definitively declared.
Still, for those waiting with bated breath for a HIV-free future, including the 1.2 million adult Americans currently living with the disease, it’s hard to not feel a glimmer of optimism. It’s a feeling that the patient at the center of it all knows well.
“I took part in the trial to help others as well as myself,” the patient, who is gay, told The Sunday Times. “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.”
The original news piece is available at Medicaldaily.com