1. A Danish study has used anti-cancer drugs to “kick out” HIV viruses from infected cells in what has been described as a new “first step” in finding a cure for HIV.
The announcement was made by lead scientist Dr Ole Schmeltz Søgaard (pictured) from Aarhus University during his Tuesday address to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.
Flanked by global leaders in HIV/AIDS research, Dr Søgaard had earlier released results in at a Monday press conference titled “Toward an HIV cure”.
2. The press conference served to lift the somber mood of the conference after the deaths of six delegates on board Malaysia Flight MH17 on their way to the conference.
From left: International AIDS President Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, AIDS 2014 Co-Chair Dr Sharon Lewin, Associate Professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Dr Deborah Persaud, Associate Professor of Medicine Harvard University Dr Dan Barouch, Senior Researcher Aarhus University Dr Ole Schmeltz Søgaard, Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute of Florida Dr Nicholas Chomont and Professor of Medicine at University of California Dr Steven Deeks.
3. Kicked Out!
The successful Danish study saw Dr Søgaard and his team test the anti-cancer drug, romidepsin, on six HIV patients from April this year.
It found the drug increased the “hibernated” HIV virus in a cell to such an extent it was able to be detected in the blood.
Or as the co-chair of the conference Dr Sharon Lewin explained, the virus was “kicked out of hiding” in five of six of the patients.
“We can activate cells and induce the release of the virus into the blood,” said Dr Søgaard.
It’s been heralded as a new hope for HIV/AIDS researchers toward the elusive cure, with Dr Søgaard’s tests showing that the “kicked out” HIV virus leaves trails in the blood that the human body’s T-cells can potentially attack.
Professor of Medicine at University of California Dr Steven Deeks was excited by the results: “Ole’s data has for the first time shown we are able to shock the virus out of its hiding place.”
The Danish researchers will now expand the trial and use other cocktails of vaccines to strengthen the human body’s ability to fight the newly revealed HIV virus.
4. “Playing Bach’s Symphony in a Darkened Room”
But there are those in the HIV/AIDS community calling for the public to have some realistic expectations about the chances of finding a workable vaccine or cure.
“I sometimes get the impression that the public thinks medical researchers can solve any malady. It is good to have such confidence in medical school, but the reality is that we can’t,” said world-renowned epidemiologist Dr Salim Abdool Karim, speaking to BuzzFeed.
The South African scientist said there’s been a “renaissance in prevention science” in the past four years much, of it focused on HIV/AIDS treatment known as anti-retrovirals.
He opened his laptop to display graphs showing the falling rates of deaths from HIV/AIDS citing the effect of antiretrovirals on transmission rates and the explosion in male circumcision in developing countries.
“The next wave of clinical trials will likely focus on testing broadly neutralising antibodies and hopefully that will set us on the right course towards a vaccine.”
When asked why there was little hope for a cure or vaccine in the next few years, Dr Karim spoke about the unique “impossibility” of the mutating HIV virus.
“Working on HIV vaccines is like walking into a darkened room with an orchestra. We need to create Bach’s Symphony, we just have no clue which instruments need to be played in which sequence.”
6. A cure is “many many years away”
A South African journalist asked one of the last questions of the press conference, telling the panel that many people in her country where HIV infection rates are at crisis levels cannot read or write and simply want to know when they can expect a cure.
The current International AIDS President and co-discoverer of the HIV virus, French scientist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi said, “We cannot really answer. And we should not give any dates. I don’t think we should give any hope.”
“We should move on.”
7. It was a similar answer Dr Barré-Sinoussi gave on Australian television on Monday evening, telling ABC’s Q&A program that she would rather not give an estimate on “a cure” and focus rather on permanent remission.
At the Monday press conference, the other scientists followed Dr Barré-Sinoussi’s lead, refusing to estimate on the timeframe for a cure.
Except for Dr Steven Deeks from the University of California, who sat at the end of the panel:
“A cure which is applicable everywhere around the world? My opinion is that it will take many, many years.”