Hot on the heels of a report a few weeks ago about a baby being "functionally cured" of HIV, a new study by researchers at the Institute Pasteur indicate that this same result could be attained for 10 percent of patients.
Their study was tiny — it consisted of 14 patients who had stopped therapy but haven't shown signs of the virus reemerging from its hiding place in the white blood cells.
These people were started on drugs within 10 weeks of their initial infection. Most people carry the virus for awhile before noticing they are infected. On average they were on drugs for about three years, but stopped taking them.
Usually, when a patient stops taking the anti-HIV drugs, the viral levels in their blood go up, because there's nothing to stop the virus from copying itself. That didn't happen in the case of these 14 patients, the researchers said. Even after up to a decade without drugs, some are going strong. The average was about 7.5 years without treatment.
Taking people off treatment is a good idea, because viruses constantly exposed to anti-HIV drugs are more likely to develop resistance to those drugs.
Dr Asier Saez-Cirion, from the Institute Pasteur in Paris, said: "Most individuals who follow the same treatment will not control the infection, but there are a few of them who will."
He said 5-15% of patients may be functionally cured, meaning they no longer needed drugs, by attacking the virus soon after infection.
"They still have HIV, it is not eradication of HIV, it is a kind of remission of the infection."
The researchers think that early treatment gets to the virus early enough that it hasn't been able to get a foothold on the immune system. The researchers checked to make sure that the people didn't have any special genetics that make them "long-term non-progressors," a group of people that, though they are infected with HIV, don't develop the crippling immune disorder AIDS.
"There are three benefits to early treatment," Sáez-Cirión told New Scientist. "It limits the reservoir of HIV that can persist, limits the diversity of the virus and preserves the immune response to the virus that keeps it in check."
"This whole area is fascinating, and we've been looking very closely at issues of early initiation of treatment, and the potential for functional cures," Andrew Ball, senior adviser on HIV/AIDS strategy at the World Health Organization in Geneva, told New Scientist. "The big challenge is identifying people very early in their infection."
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