Are we on the path to curing HIV?

With advancements in treatment, it's more possible now than ever before to lead a healthy life if you have HIV.

Are we on the path to curing HIV?
Source: Pexels/ Anna Shvets

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the body's immune system and can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) if left untreated. It's spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of someone who has it, often through unprotected sex or sharing drug needles.

With advancements in treatment, it's more possible now than ever before to lead a healthy life if you have HIV. But still, HIV and AIDs are major health concerns, especially in developing regions. Today, HIV affects more than 30 million people around the world. It's killed over 40 million people so far. The WHO African Region is the most affected, with 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2021, and the region makes up almost 60% of new infections globally.

The good news is – curing HIV is becoming a reality.

After receiving stem-cell transplants as a cancer treatment, five former HIV patients are now cured and free of the virus. The fifth person confirmed to be HIV-free is a 53-year-old man in Düsseldorf, Germany.

HIV can be managed by something called antiretroviral therapy (ART). This calls for a combination of drugs that stop the virus from being copied into the cell's DNA. Other drugs stop the virus from maturing or block viral fusion, which makes it so HIV can't infect new cells. ART isn't a cure, but it is really important for keeping the virus controlled. In fact, many patients managing HIV with ART live an average lifespan, and it can reduce virus levels low enough so they aren't transferred to someone else. But, it's an expensive treatment that many people don't have access to or cannot afford.

"HIV has been a tough nut to crack," says Marshall Glesby, an infectious disease specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine and a co-author of a recent HIV cure case study. "But there is incremental progress being made in terms of our understanding of where the virus hides within the body and potential ways to purge it from those sites."

Right now, there are two strategies that scientists are working on to cure the virus – treatment-free remission and viral eradication.

The first approach is geared toward controlling HIV without taking daily meds. Researchers are looking into antibody therapies and therapeutic vaccines for this method. Basically, these treatments would help the body's immune system fight off the virus.

Viral eradication is all about using protein signals from cells that drugs would be able to recognize and kill, thereby completely removing HIV from the body.

The breakthrough cure cases have been viral eradication through combination treatments like chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. For now, these treatments are pretty high-risk, so they're only going to be used for a select few people. But, this progress could help "inform future strategies for achieving long-term remission of HIV-1," according to researchers from Düsseldorf University Hospital.