A cure for AIDS in sight

July 23, 2012

WASHINGTON – The Nobel laureate who helped to discover HIV says there is hope for an AIDS cure following recent discoveries.

Ms Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008 as part of a team that discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes AIDS, said scientific research had made major strides since then. She cited a patient in Berlin who appears to have been cured through a bone marrow transplant, “which proves that finding a way of eliminating the virus from the body is something that is realistic.”

Other sources of optimism are the small minority of patients – less than 0.3% – who exhibit no symptoms of the virus without ever receiving treatment; and a small group in France who received antiretroviral drugs and now live without treatment or symptoms, Ms Barre-Sinoussi said. “There is hope… but don’t ask me for a date because we do not know.”

She also said that it would be possible “in principle” to eliminate the AIDS pandemic by 2050, if barriers to drug access could be eliminated.

The main barriers were not scientific but political, economic and social, she said: the problem was lack of access to testing and drugs in poor and rural areas, as well as the stigma around the virus, which undermines early detection and treatment.

Some 25,000 people – including celebrities, scientists and people living with HIV – are expected in the US capital today to call for more strident global action to address the three-decade AIDS epidemic.

“At the Washington conference we are expecting greater mobilization… to widen access to current treatments and to continue research into HIV,” Ms Barre-Sinoussi said.

Deaths and infections are down in the parts of the world most ravaged by the disease, while the number of people on treatment has risen 20%  from 2010 to 2011, reaching eight million people in needy countries.

However this is only about half the people who should be on treatment worldwide, suggesting much more remains to be done.

More than 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV, a higher number than ever before, and around 30 million have died from Aids-related causes since the disease first emerged in the 1980s, according to UNAids.

Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference returns to the United States for the first time since 1990, after being kept away by laws that barred people with HIV from traveling to the country. The US ban was formally lifted in 2009, and researchers have described fresh optimism in the fight against Aids on several fronts ahead of the six-day conference that starts today and runs through Friday.

Eastern Europe and central Asia are experiencing worsening epidemics, while the United States has been unable to curb the rate of new infections in recent years despite a host of new research advances.
Advances in antiretroviral medication have transformed the disease from a death sentence into a manageable condition for many sufferers.

The drugs have also offered hope in preventing new cases by making infected people less contagious during sex and offering healthy people some degree of protection if they take the medication daily.

But trials on the approach called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, have shown mixed results, with some failing to help prevent HIV at all, suggesting that uninfected people may have a hard time adhering to the regimen.

And there remains a major gap in the United States between the number of people diagnosed and the number with their viral load under control through medication, a phenomenon known as the “treatment cascade.”

Even though 80% of people with HIV in America are aware of their status, just 28% have the disease under control, a trend that Ronald Valdiserri, director of the US Office of HIV/AIDS Policy, said on Thursday “is bound to be a topic of discussion.”

The hunt for a cure, which has eluded scientists, will be another hot topic. HIV co-discoverer and Nobel laureate Francoise Barre-Sinoussi announced on Thursday a new roadmap for scientists in research toward a cure. Funding is also at a critical juncture, with many nations boosting their domestic spending on the disease while international donations remain flat.

Total worldwide investment in HIV was US$16.8 billion last year, an 11% rise from 2010, but still far short of the US$22 to 24 billion needed by 2015, according to a UNAids report released on Thursday.

“We are at a moment of extraordinary optimism in the response to the human immunodeficiency virus,” doctors Diane Havlir of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Aids Research wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine this week.

“The scientific opportunities and optimism at this moment in HIV research are not matched, however, by the available resources.”

Doctors Without Borders has called for a doubling to the pace of treatment and a doubling of funds to reach all those who need treatment. (AFP)

Category: General health news

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