Breakthroughs bring us a step closer to AIDS cure

By Norman Rozenberg

Testing positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was considered a death sentence at the beginning of the epidemic in the 1980s. But new pharmaceutical technologies and treatment options are making HIV and AIDS much more manageable to treat.

The AIDS cocktail of the 1990s, a combination of drugs that was able to delay the path from HIV to AIDS, gave way to a few treatment options designed to inhibit or block certain receptors of the HIV virus itself or those found on human cells.

Despite these advances in treatment, AIDS remains at epidemic levels as the number of people living with HIV and AIDS continues to grow globally. According to the Joint United Nations Development Program on HIV/AIDS, there were 2.3 million new infections in 2012 alone. Although this number has fallen dramatically since the onset of the epidemic, the global health community is a long way from eradicating the disease.

However, recent developments in biomedical engineering have made various cures possible.

Temple University researchers announce discovery

Researchers from the Temple University School of Medicine based their system on a bacterial defense mechanism of the HIV-1 virus. HIV-1 is the more common of the two major subgroups of the human immunodeficiency virus.

The high degree of genetic variability of the HIV virus makes stopping the virus a difficult endeavor.

HIV-1 imprints its own DNA into the patient’s DNA, making it virtually impossible to remove the virus using antiviral medications. Now, researchers from Temple have found a way to snip the viral DNA out, creating a new opportunity for eradicating AIDS.

Dr. Kamel Khalili and Dr. Wenhui Hu led this work, designing a strand of ribonucleic acid (RNA) that can pair with the viral DNA to prevent it from pairing further with human DNA. The genetically engineered RNA strand hunts down the virus and removes it from human cells. This method evolved from ideas about ridding human cells of bacterial infection.

“Since HIV-1 is never cleared by the immune system, removal of the virus is required in order to cure the disease,” said Dr. Khalili, whose research focuses on the neuropathogenesis of viral infections, in a press release.

However, the technology that remains to be developed is the method to deliver these treatments to every infected cell in the body.

“We are working on a number of strategies so we can take the construct into preclinical studies,” Dr. Khalili said. “We want to eradicate every single copy of HIV-1 from the patient. That will cure AIDS. I think this technology is the way we can do it.”

Other options on the table

A child dubbed by media in 2013 as the “Mississippi baby” was for all intents and purposes cured of HIV. This child received a strong dosage of powerful antiviral medications shortly within 30 hours of birth. This breakthrough remained one of the most important steps in the fight to cure HIV/AIDS and remains one of the most important options for the medical community.

Although the early blood tests did not reveal HIV, exams conducted in July found traceable levels of the virus in the child’s bloodstream. This discovery set back treating doctors and the HIV/AIDS community at large, but the antiviral medication treatment is still on the table.

“We´ve always known that the search for an HIV cure wasn’t going to be easy,” Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, president of the International AIDS Society, said in a statement. “Cases like this are hugely important for informing researchers on where to focus their efforts.”

Other children have also been administered a similar treatment, including one child from California, but antiviral treatments continue to this day. A large dosage of antiviral medications hours after birth remains one of the most discussed treatment options available.

The road to curing HIV/AIDS is a long one, with many twists and turns. Optimism and innovations are driving research forward, and a cure could be just around the corner.

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