Just two weeks after US doctors announced a new-born baby was ‘functionally cured’ of HIV, it appears the same treatment has worked on 14 full-grown men and women. The discovery was made at the Pasteur Institute in France and the study reports that the 14 ‘functionally cured’ adults still have the deadly virus in their system, but the virus is so weak their own immune systems are easily able to keep it in check. Due to the patients receiving rapid treatment after early diagnosis, they are no longer are at risk of developing AIDS — the deadly second phase of the HIV infection.
A spokesman for the institute said, “It’s not eradication, but they can clearly live without pills for a very long period of time.”
The Pasteur Institute’s unit for regulation of retroviral infections study was led by Asier Sáez-Cirión, who studied a group of 70 people who began a course of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) between 35 days and 10 weeks after becoming infected with the HIV virus.
The 70 patients took the retroviral drugs for an average of three years before stopping treatment completely. Although a majority of the patients relapsed when their treatment was interrupted, four women and 10 men who are known as the ‘Visconti cohort’ were able to stay off the ARVs without the virus resurging, aka being ‘functionally cured’ of the virus.
Traces of HIV remain in their blood, but they are at such low levels that their body can keep it in check without drugs. The incredible part is that the 14 adults have been off their medications for an average of seven years, and one person has gone 10.5 years without drugs.
Dr Saez-Cirion said: "There are three benefits to early treatment. It limits the reservoir of HIV that can persist, limits the diversity of the virus and preserves the immune response to the virus that keeps it in check."
Andrew Ball, senior adviser on HIV/AIDS strategy at the World Health Organization, said "This whole idea is fascinating, and we’ve been looking very closely at issues of early initiation of treatment, and the potential for functional cures."
Further analysis showed that the 14 adults were not super-controllers, meaning they were not the 1 per cent of the population that is naturally resistant to HIV, because they lacked the necessary protective genes. Natural controllers also rapidly suppress their infections, whereas members of the ‘Visconti cohort’ had severe symptoms which led to their early treatment.
“Paradoxically, doing badly helped them do better later,” Sáez-Cirión said.
“The big challenge is identifying people very early in their infection,” said Ball, adding that many people resist testing because of the stigma and potential discrimination. “There’s a good rationale for being tested early, and the latest results may give some encouragement to do that.”
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