Nobel Laureate Francoise Barre-Sinoussi‚ who co-discovered the virus that causes Aids‚ believes it is possible that one day people will live with HIV‚ without taking medicine and yet remain healthy and un-infectious.
She was speaking at the Sci-Bono centre in Johannesburg on Friday. Barre-Sinoussi believes a cure that will completely eliminate HIV from the body is “impossible”. But she says sending the virus into remission is possible.
The scientist explained that clinical remission is when the virus is still in the body‚ but it is not replicating‚ not attacking the cells and the person cannot transmit HIV.
The virus would also not be activating the carrier’s immune system and causing inflammation in the body‚ which is linked to lifestyle disease such as heart disease and cancer.
The reason she believes remission is possible is because up to three in 1000 HIV-positive people naturally send the virus into remission and never require medicine. They are called elite controllers. These are people whose bodies stop the virus replicating and remain healthy 20 years after infection without antiretroviral medication.
The Nobel Laureate explained that there are multiple trials trying to understand how the immune systems of elite controllers work‚ so that one day treatments can be developed for all HIV positive people.
Elite controllers were detected almost by accident. A trial in France followed HIV-positive patients from the time of them testing positive to watch how the disease developed in their bodies.
The researchers found that a very small percentage of patients never needed treatment.
“These people have an efficient immune response related to a specific genetic background‚” said Barre-Sinoussi.
There is also a group of 20 French patients who started treatment but later stopped it‚ and have remained healthy for 10 years. This group is being studied to understand how their immune system controls the virus without medication.
Barre-Sinoussi is part of an initiative called Towards a Cure‚ which co-ordinates different international funders and scientists to work together efficiently to find a way to send the virus into remission.
The SA Department of Science and Technology is also part of the initiative. Also speaking at the event‚ Wits Professor Lynn Morris said a vaccine against HIV was essential to stop the disease spreading.
“We have got to stop people getting infected. The most successful way of preventing diseases is by vaccination. Vaccination has eliminated smallpox from the world.”
“We are getting hints that an HIV vaccine is possible. A lot of people feel it is a solvable problem‚” said Morris. Scientists have been working on a vaccine for more than 30 years and only one vaccine has offered 30% protection from the virus‚ too little for it to be used widely.
One of the many difficulties of developing a vaccine is that the virus mutates a lot. “Scientists are working to target parts of the virus that don’t change.” These could be the virus’s “Achilles heel‚” said Morris. Deputy director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute‚ Francois Venter‚ said the improvements in HIV medicine have been “nothing short of a medical miracle”.
“We have gone from a situation in early 90s in which patients had handfuls of tablets that had terrible side effects and did very little‚ to patients today needing a single tablet a day with minimal side effects.” “I am sometimes surprised at the lack of ambition in other medical fields”. He said diabetes research and treatments for high blood pressure had not progressed nearly has fast as the HIV field. – The Times