So far HIV has eluded a permanent cure, yet many newly diagnosed
patients can now control the virus with just one pill per day. Most
lead relatively normal lives. In developing countries where
millions are without access to cutting-edge drugs, life with HIV
means a struggle for survival.
In past years, whenever hope was raised for a permanent cure,
trials failed in the end. Major HIV players, like
Gilead Sciences, Inc.
Bristol Myers Squib
Merck & Co, Inc
), have been largely absent from the scene. Merck is moving to
improve its antiviral offerings, but faces generic competition and
problems due to patent loss.
) is working with the Karolinska Institutet to develop a new class
of drugs designed to vanquish the virus, not just control it. But
overall, a permanent cure would likely squash the healthy profits
these stocks derive from drugs that must be taken daily and for
life where monthly expenses reach into the thousands. Most current
research is undertaken in medical laboratories and universities.
Now once again, hope is surfacing: Across the globe, from Duke
University to the United Kingdom, and most importantly in Denmark,
HIV researchers are optimistic about a cure.
In Danish laboratories, positive early in vitro findings suggest
that once the HIV virus is isolated and brought to the surface of
the cells from within DNA "reservoirs," it can be destroyed by the
body's own immune system with the help of a vaccine administered to
bolster the attack.
"I am almost certain that we will be successful in activating HIV
from the reservoirs," said Dr. Ole Sogaard, a senior researcher at
the Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark "The challenge will be in
getting the immune system to recognize the virus and destroy it.
This depends on the strength and sensitivity of individual immune
The new technique has proved so successful in in vitro laboratory
tests that in January, researchers in Denmark were funded with
Â£1.5 million (equivalent to $1,976,550) to proceed to a human
clinical trial. Doctors there
that the novel approach "could lead to a cure within months" and
brings them "to the brink" of "finding a mass distributable and
affordable cure to HIV." Currently fifteen patients are
participating in the Danish trials. Once a patient is cured of the
virus, the trial will be expanded.
Despite all the optimism, some researchers are wary about the
outlook for an imminent cure. "We're not months away from a cure,"
Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of The Foundation for AIDS Research
(AmfAR), recently told The Huffington Post. "There is still a lot
of work that has to be done." He said, "Essentially, the biggest
obstacle to a cure for people with HIV is that the virus lives in
viral reservoirs, which are not susceptible to the current drugs we
have. What a lot of scientists have been trying to do lately is
figure out if there are drugs that can stimulate the viral
reservoirs so that we may begin to target them."
British Scientists Test the Same Method, While Duke
Researchers Take Another Approach.
Concurrent to the Danish research, the same novel approach is being
studied in the United Kingdom; however, tests there have not yet
moved to clinical trial. Five universities -- including Oxford,
Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London, and
King's College London -- have joined to form the Collaborative HIV
Eradication of Reservoirs UK Biomedical Research Centre Group
(CHERUB), which is dedicated to finding an HIV cure.
Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina also seem to be on
the brink of a breakthrough. Up until now, the HIV virus has proven
to be a difficult vaccine target. However, Duke scientists led by
Barton Haynes, M.D., Director of the Human Vaccine Institute,
recently seem closer to discovering a way to improve victims' own
immune response, which could lead to a vaccine. Still, the process
is theoretical, and some scientists remain only cautiously
So far, Duke's advanced discovery stems from finding a person in
Africa whose HIV infection was detected early enough so that the
virus had not yet mutated to escape the body's immune assault. That
same African patient is also among the fortunate few (20%) whose
immune system is able to overcome the virus. This has allowed Duke
researchers to track and map the virus through every step of the
process. The team believesthat they have come up with a way to
drive the immune system to preferentially churn out the same
broadly neutralizing antibodies that mimic the way this patient's
immune response successfully overcomes the virus.
"The next step is to use that information to make sequential viral
envelopes and test them as experimental vaccines," said Haynes.
"This is a process of discovery and we've come a long way with
regard to understanding what the problem has been."
Dr. Louis J. Picker, of Oregon Health & Science University,
described the study as "a road map to vaccine development, yes -
but it's like one of those maps of the world from the year 1400. We
still don't know how to turn this into a vaccine," as reported by