We live in an age where our eyes and ears are constantly bombarded on a daily basis by a barrage of negative international developments that constitute the raw material of mainstream news reporting.
From tragic deaths due to accidents, disease or some other misfortune, to crises in politics, business and religion, to name a few examples, that have diminished public confidence in key institutions and persons holding positions of trust and authority.
These past few days, however, were refreshingly different as a major news item emerged about a positive development of great international significance. It seems, at long last, that a solution may be in sight to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, unquestionably the greatest public health challenge of our time.
Since the discovery back in 1983 of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which gradually destroys the body’s defence system and progresses ultimately to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), more than 70 million persons worldwide have been infected and more than 35 million have died, according to the World Health Organization.
From being generally seen as an inescapable death sentence in the early stages of the pandemic when there was considerable public hysteria, scientific breakthroughs over the years have provided progressively more effective treatments, giving infected persons a new lease on life and allowing them to lead a relatively normal and healthy existence.
The latest encouraging development, which is the source of guarded optimism in the scientific community over a cure, involves a 44-year-old British man who appears to be the first person in the world to be fully cured of HIV using a basically conventional approach. He is among a group of 50 persons taking part in trials of a new therapy designed by a team of scientists from five universities in the United Kingdom.
The new therapy targets HIV even in its dormant state. Scientists told The Sunday Times newspaper this past weekend that the virus was completely undetectable in the man’s blood, acknowledging, though, that this too could be a result of regular anti HIV drugs. However, if the dormant cells are also cleared of HIV, the case could represent the first complete cure.
“This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV,” Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Institute for Health Research Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, was quoted as saying. “We are exploring the real possibility of curing HIV. This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days but the progress has been remarkable,” he added.
Researchers from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London are conducting the trial. HIV is said to be difficult to treat because it targets the immune system, splicing itself into the DNA of T-cells so that they not only ignore the disease, but turn into viral factories which reproduce the virus.
Current treatments, involving the use of anti-retroviral therapies (ART) target that process but have limitations in that they cannot spot dormant infected T-cells. The new therapy being tested works in two stages. Firstly, it involves the use of a vaccine which helps the body to recognize HIV-infected cells so it can clear them out. Secondly, the introduction of a new drug, Vorinostat, activates the dormant T-cells so they can be spotted by the immune system.
As Professor Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician at Imperial College London, explained: “This therapy is specifically designed to clear the body of all HIV viruses, including dormant ones. 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.
She added: “We will continue with medical tests for the next five years and at the moment we are not recommending stopping (anti-retroviral therapies) but in the future, depending on the test results, we may explore this.”
Prior to the latest development, only one person has ever been cured of HIV. This occurred after the man, Timothy Brown, received a stem cell transplant from a patient with natural immunity to HIV in 2008. First, doctors used radiation and chemotherapy to wipe out his immune system, then rebuilding it with the donated stem cell.
Besides placing pressure on health care systems and national budgets to underwrite treatment costs, HIV/AIDS has presented a major development challenge for developing countries in particular, robbing their economies of the most productive segment of the population. Solid confirmation of a cure for HIV/AIDS would be most welcome news indeed. The world, which has been awaiting this day for a long time, should keep its fingers crossed in light of this encouraging latest development.