As of today, HIV research has come a long way since. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) was a major milestone that has changed the lives of millions, but the goal now is to find an HIV cure even though the virus continues to show a remarkable ability to remain alive inside what are known as HIV reservoirs in infected persons.
Scientists are conducting various tests on people for an HIV cure research in South Africa and United States as part of an ongoing exploratory research to identify the most promising development.
According to Lilian Mworeko, community member in Wakiso district, “As community activists, we are committed to accelerating cure research to get to the end of HIV, not leaving anyone behind, inclusive of those living with HIV.”
“The only meaningful HIV cure is something that will work in all countries including United States, where I come from and in rural villages in Uganda”, Steve Deeks, HIV cure researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, said on May 30 at Speke Resort Munyonyo during an Advocacy for Cure Academy meeting of civil society supporting researchers worldwide.
“This meeting highlights the progress that has been made in finding an HIV cure. Most of the research is currently in the USA but it needs to shift to Africa, where the burden is high, and build capacity to achieve an Aids-free continent,” Thumbi, an HIV cure researcher in South Africa, said.
He said an HIV cure research is necessary and has begun because people with HIV want a cure to alleviate ART costs, donor dependency, stigma, daily pill burden and ARVs drug stockout issues that lead to problems of drug resistance.
However, Deeks said in this research they still face the challenge of the virus’ ability to replicate its shape and produce more copies which becomes difficult for available drugs to suppress it in its entirety in the body.
He said in their research, they are looking for ways of clearing HIV reservoirs to eradicate the virus completely.
“These reservoirs of HIV-infected cells are found in the immune system in places like the brain, bone marrow and genital tract. They lie hidden and dormant, and can’t be reached with standard ART treatments,” he said.
Deeks pointed at the well-known fact that if ARV treatment is stopped or interrupted, the reservoirs grab the chance and the virus starts to replicate and infect more cells, rendering the patient’s immune system too weak to fight back.
About a vaccine
According to Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, the director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), researchers are also developing and testing therapeutic HIV vaccines to slow down the progression of HIV infection and hopefully result in undetectable levels of HIV without using daily antiretroviral therapy.
It helps to improve the body’s immune response to HIV in a person who already has HIV virus. It is under trial in its early stages in South Africa.
“However, at the moment, there is no therapeutic vaccine that has been successful to allow people go off treatment of ART. The therapeutic vaccine has not worked well when tested in HIV-infected people, although it’s still in its early stages of trial. Researchers need to look at other types of research when developing this vaccine,” he said.
Kaleebu said the therapeutic vaccine works by producing anti-bodies that work against HIV infection or reduces the viral load in an HIV infected person. Normal vaccines are designed to prevent infections, but so far none has worked for HIV.
“Once therapeutic HIV vaccine is developed and confirmed, it will kill the virus and the cells that are infected. While the preventative vaccine given to HIV negative people will train the body to be able to recognise and fight HIV, when they are encountered with it (HIV),” he said.
According to Aids info website, currently there is no therapeutic HIV vaccines approved. It also states researchers are evaluating therapeutic HIV vaccines as part of a larger strategy to eliminate all HIV from the body and cure people of HIV. This kind of strategy may involve using other drugs and therapies in addition to a therapeutic HIV vaccine.
For now, HIV cure research is still in early exploratory stages, and it is not known what strategies may or may not work.
ART is the recommended treatment for HIV infection and involves using a combination of different HIV medicines to prevent HIV from replicating. Currently, a person with HIV must remain on ART to keep HIV at undetectable levels.