hiv cure treatment immunotherapy gene therapy

HIV cure: will we get there by 2020?

August 03, 2018

HIV research has come a long way since its emergence and discovery in the 1980’s. AZT was the first major milestone in the fight against HIV. However, it proved to be a massive disappointment, causing more harm than good. Luckily enough antiretroviral therapy emerged in place of AZT, hailing a new era of effective HIV treatment who's implications on health were positive in comparison to its predecessor, enabling patients to contain the virus and minimise viral loads. The next big step for man is now to find a cure; the question is if we’ll get there by 2020?

Finding a cure for HIV is considered by many as being an impossible task. How are you meant to treat a virus that evolves through frequent mutation? For many, the answer to this question was thought to be locked away in the ‘Berlin patient’, Timothy Ray Brown. Those of you who aren’t aware, Brown is the only patient to be cured of HIV, where Brown received a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was naturally resistant to HIV.

Although this procedure could not be replicated, scientists think that Brown's miracle-cure came down to three different factors. Firstly, the cells given to Brown contained a rare mutation that alters receptors needed by HIV to translocate into white blood cells. The second factor being the conditioning of Brown's immune system in preparation for the transplantation, where a combination of chemotherapy and radiation would have killed all HIV infected cells. Finally, the transplanted cells were believed to have attacked Brown's cells, a process known as graft versus host disease, which resulted in the eradication of any remaining HIV infected cells.

Possible solution one: Immunotherapy

One of the leading sources of research that could lead to a possible HIV cure is around immunotherapy. Immunotherapy involves designing T cell receptors that seek and bind HIV and any HIV-infected cells, effectively coordinating their eradication. One of the most advanced immunotherapies now in development is a vaccine called VAC-3S. VAC-3S developed by biotech company InnaVirVax, specifically stimulates the production of antibodies against the HIV protein 3S, making T cells attack the virus. Currently, VAC-3S has completed Phase 2a trials and is to be tested with a DNA-based vaccine developed by Finnish FIT Biotech. If phase 3 clinical trials are a success, this could lead to a functional cure.

Possible solution two: Gene Therapy

It is estimated that 1% of people worldwide are immune to HIV infection. The reason to why this biological anomaly exists is because certain individuals are gifted with a genetic mutation on the gene that encodes CCR5. As a result, surface proteins needed for cell binding and entry by HIV are structurally altered, naturally preventing viral interactions and granting individuals immunity. It is believed by researchers that it is possible to edit DNA and introduce this mutation to prevent further infection. US-based Sangamo Therapeutics have managed to extract patient immune cells and edit their DNA to make them resistant to HIV. Sangamo had reported that results from a phase 2 trial showed that four out of nine patients had success with gene therapy and were able to remain off antiretroviral therapy. This is just an example of the progress being made towards an HIV cure.

Yes, the prospect of a cure in the near future is good, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Remain aware and in control of your sexual health. Take all the preventative measures necessary to keep yourself and others safe from sexually transmitted infections and disease. Collectively we can make a change! So let’s get to it.


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