Over 30 years ago scientists discovered the virus that causes AIDS and since then the developments in treatment and care have helped patients live longer, healthier lives. Meanwhile, advancements in prevention efforts have made it easier for HIV negative individuals to remain that way, even when partnered with someone who is HIV positive.
Scientific research continues, hoping to unlock the mystery of the disease which continues to take lives decades after its discovery. While there is much work left to be done, there are reasons to be hopeful that the future will bring even greater discoveries, treatments and breakthroughs.
Here are some of the bigger headlines over this past year, showing definite progress in the treatment and eradication of HIV/AIDS.
Waking up HIV to destroy it
A study led by scientists at the Sanford Burnham Prebys (SBP) Medical Discovery Institute discovered that drugs called Second Mitochondrial-derived Activator of Caspases (SMAC) mimetics activate dormant HIV hiding in cells, making infected cells visible to the immune system, which can then destroy them. Better yet, some of these SMAC inhibitors are already in clinical trials for cancer, meaning they may be repurposed for HIV therapy in only two to three years, instead of the eight to nine for a new drug, the study’s senior author Sumit Chanda said.
Since these SMAC inhibitors were not specifically developed to inhibit HIV, their effectiveness may be limited. However, another SBP author has found another potential drug 10 to 100 times more effective in awakening dormant HIV inside the genome.
The study was published in September in the journal Cell Host & Microbe. It can be found online at j.mp/wakeuphiv.
HIV vaccine to begin human testing
Dr. Robert Gallo (pictured right), head of the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology and the man who helped discover that HIV leads to AIDS, as well as developing the blood test to detect it, announced in October that his team’s HIV vaccine is at last entering human testing.
“The results in monkeys are interesting, but they’re not perfect. If we keep just using monkeys, we’re never going anywhere. We need for humans to respond,” Gallo said. “We wanted more and more answers before going into people.”
This is one of 30 similar drugs in some stage of human testing. Past vaccines have not been effective enough to support general use, such as the 2009 study done in Thailand that protected one third of patients against HIV.
The first phase of testing will take about a year and will only test whether or not the vaccine is safe for human use. Subsequent rounds will test the effectiveness of the vaccine, which will take years to complete.
The vaccine contains a version of HIV’s surface protein that the virus tries to hide.
PrEP use on the rise, aiding in prevention of HIV/AIDS
When Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, was first discovered as an effective prevention tool against contracting HIV, it seemed it might quickly reduce the rate of infections around the world. Unfortunately, there were obstacles in the way of widespread use, such as doctors being unwilling or hesitant to prescribe a daily medication to healthy patients and stigma that those using the drug were often seen as being promiscuous and, perhaps, less likely to use condoms. Some of the stigma and lack of education and knowledge around the medication seems to be slowly dissipating, as use begins to rise.
The White House included PrEP in its national HIV/AIDS strategy, which was released last July.
Nigeria has begun a pilot HIV prevention program utilizing both PrEP and TasP (Treatment as Prevention).The National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) heads up the study.
Many insurance companies cover PrEP, although that does leave some of the most vulnerable populations, who may not have access to quality health insurance, to pay for the medication without assistance. Unfortunately, the drug is not cheap, but hopefully over time the price will start to come down.
New pill that fights HIV/AIDS related infection makes debut, costs $1
In response to Turing Pharmaceuticals buying the patent to the drug Daraprim, used to fight an HIV/AIDS-related parasitic infection and increasing the cost by around 4,000 percent, Imprimis Pharmaceuticals introduced in October a Daraprim alternative for just $1.
Imprimis Chief Executive Officer Mark Baum referenced the price spike by Turing in his announcement, saying, “While we have seen an increase in costs associated with regulatory compliance, recent generic drug price increases have made us concerned and caused us to take positive action to address an opportunity to help a needy patient population.”