The 20th International AIDS Conference, which concluded in July, 2014, may have been marred by the loss of several scholars and activists on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, but it still delivered some good news in the fight against the planet’s HIV epidemic.
Here are some important things the conference taught us:
Waking up hidden HIV
Scientists revealed a new approach to getting rid of the HIV virus, called the “kick and kill” approach, using an anti-cancer drug to kick the virus out of where it is hiding in the body.
Dr Ole Schmeltz Sogaard from Denmark’s Aarhus University said he gave patients anti-cancer drugs which increased the production of HIV-infected cells more than three times above normal. The cells could then be traced and targeted with existing treatments. “We’ve now shown we can activate a hibernating virus with Romidepsin and that the activating virus moves into the bloodstream in large amounts,” Dr Sogaard said. “This is a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome before we can start talking about a cure against HIV.
Promising bone marrow transplant
HIV-positive patients treated at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital were given a bone marrow transplant, which appeared to have cleared them of the virus. They now have undetectable levels of HIV but remain on antiretroviral therapy as a protective measure. Although the results were significant, experts stressed that bone marrow transplants were not a cure for HIV, as it remained a costly and a potentially dangerous procedure.
TB breakthrough reducing treatment times
The conference was told about a major breakthrough in treating tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis killed one in five people with HIV and remained the largest killer in the world of people with AIDS. Results of an international study showed a new combination of drugs meant that drug-resistant TB could be cured in as little as four months, instead of two years.
AIDS free generation ‘within reach’ – Bill Clinton
Former US president Bill Clinton declared that an AIDS-free generation was within reach, despite the fact that every year another 2 million people are infected with HIV.
But he said the international community had to get better at detecting the disease early.
“New data from 51 countries suggests 70 per cent of HIV-related deaths could have been prevented,” he said.
“The evidence continues to build that early treatment helps prevent further transmission.”
His speech was briefly interrupted by protesters calling for new taxes to support the fight against AIDS, which brings us to the next lesson.
More funding needed
Artist and poverty campaigner Bob Geldof slammed the world’s wealthiest countries over a “disgraceful” lack of HIV funding. He said while there had been incredible advances in the fight against HIV and AIDS in the past 30 years, the final steps were the most crucial.
According to UNAIDS, 19 of the 20 most-AIDS-affected countries were in Africa and 72 per cent of all people with HIV lived in the sub-Saharan region. Sir Bob criticised the foreign aid spending of wealthy countries, especially Australia, which planned to cut its contribution by $7.6 billion over the next five years.
PrEP really works at preventing infection if taken regularly
A new study called iPrEx OLE has further confirmed the effectiveness of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), HIV medication taken by people who do not currently carry the virus to prevent them from being infected. When taken regularly, PrEP is highly effective at preventing HIV infection. The primary obstacle PrEP faces is whether a person takes it regularly. It’s prescribed as a daily regimen, and the study found it to be 100 percent effective among people who took it at least four times a week. Individuals who only took 2-3 doses per week had an efficacy rate of 84 percent, while those who took it less often were no more protected from the virus than if they weren’t taking it at all. When taken properly, it seems PrEP approaches perfection in preventing the transmission of HIV. The same study also found that taking PrEP did not lead users to take risks during sex.
Condoms could soon come with anti-HIV gel
The Australian biotech firm Starpharma has developed an antiviral compound called VivaGel that it hopes to introduce to condom lube to help kill HIV and some other sexually transmitted infections, reducing the risk of transmission. Tests have suggested it can deactivate up to 99.9 percent of virus cells. VivaGel is still undergoing trials in the U.S., so it’s not available yet, and there may be good reason to exercise caution. Other studies have found that the substance can be an irritant to the body, which would attract the very white blood cells most susceptible to HIV infection. Still, given condoms always have the possibility of failing, VivaGel could help compensate by further reducing the risk of infection.
HIV could be destroyed without harm to the infected cells
At Temple University, researchers took a different approach to attacking HIV head on. They have created a protein combo that is capable of targeting and attaching itself to the HIV in a cell’s DNA. It cuts out the infected part, allowing the cell to repair itself and become healthy again. The “gene surgery” technique is still years away from successful human implementation. Though it’s proven effective on human cells, animal testing is just now beginning. Researchers will have to develop a method to administer the treatment in a way that reaches every infected cell and that can individualized to combat different mutations of the virus. The technique could ultimately prove useful in fighting other viruses.
Compiled with Agency reports