London - Hopes of a total cure for HIV have been dealt a blow, after researchers in the US discovered that the amount of viruses left in a patient's body while receiving the current leading treatments may be up to 60 times larger than previously thought.
Experts said the findings were “discouraging” but should re-focus efforts to make sure HIV positive people are getting the treatment they need.
Although modern drug treatments have proved hugely effective at controlling the HIV virus - enabling patients to live long and full lives and reducing infection rates - they do not kill all the viruses in an infected individual, leaving behind a “reservoir” of inactive ones. These remain a threat because they can become active again if a patient stops taking their antiretroviral drugs.
The results were published in the journal Cell following a study at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland. “The findings suggest that there are a lot more of these proviruses that we have to worry about than we thought,” said Robert Siliciano, an HHMI investigator at The Johns Hopkins University, who led the new study.
“It doesn't mean that it's hopeless, but it does mean we need to focus on getting an even clearer idea of the scope of the problem.”
In HIV positive patients the virus targets the immune system's T cells, and becomes integrated into the cell's genes, making the cell reproduce the virus. Antiretroviral drugs target these active forms of the virus, but in some cells, the virus remains inactive. It is this type of virus that researchers now believe is far more numerous than previously thought. As of yet, researchers have no way of eradicating inactive HIV viruses.
Lisa Power, policy director at Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK's leading HIV and Aids charity, said: “The lesson from this is that prevention is not only better than cure, it's the only viable option for the foreseeable future.”
“It's discouraging, but we need to accept we're in this for the long haul and do what we can where we can, which is encourage people to wear condoms, have regular sexual health check-ups and to avoid other forms of risks like needle sharing.” - The Independent