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How far are we from finding a cure for HIV?

Burnet Institute

08 July, 2013

Vienna 2010 press conference

Co-Head of Burnet’s Centre for Biomedical Research and local co-chair of the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014, Melbourne), Professor Sharon Lewin writes for the Sunday Age about the latest developments in the search for an HIV cure.

CLICK HERE to read the article in full.

The news last week that two HIV-infected men in Boston were able to stop their anti-HIV drugs without evidence of the virus returning has, not surprisingly, made headlines around the world.

Coming so soon after the equally heavily publicised cases this year of the ‘'functionally’‘ cured ’‘Mississippi baby’‘ and the 14 adults living with HIV in France who are all doing well nine years after being taken off anti-retrovirals, it is understandably generating a public perception that perhaps we are inching closer to a cure for HIV.

However, for those of us working in the field, all these cases raise as many questions as they answer.

Where does this leave us? Where exactly are we in terms of finding a cure for HIV? And why is the search for a cure back on the agenda when current treatments for HIV, called antiretrovirals, taken at the right time are able to provide people living with HIV a normal life expectancy?

Antiretrovirals have delivered one of the most spectacular scientific advances in recent decades.

They can block the virus from infecting new cells and very effectively keep the virus under control for many years.

These highly effective drugs significantly prolong life and at the same time dramatically reduce a person’s infectiousness. They have literally saved millions of lives, families and communities.

But the drugs have their limits; if the antiretrovirals are stopped, the virus resurfaces in blood - on average within three to four weeks.

This happens because the virus can hide in certain blood cells and can essentially ‘'go to sleep’‘ and become invisible to the drugs and the patient’s immune system. These long-lived ’‘reservoirs’‘ of virus persist indefinitely.

Therefore, patients require lifelong treatment - which comes with substantial costs and some long-term side-effects.

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