Cure for HIV
HIV/AIDS affects nearly 37 million individuals around the world every day, with close to 5,000 new infections daily. The virus’ reach extends around the world, affecting individuals in all six habitable continents. However, new research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center indicates that there may now be a cure for HIV. The journal, Nature Communications, published this research on July 2, 2019, and it has major implications; such a cure could bring relief to countless millions of individuals who currently suffer from the virus.

Treatment Development

Using mice as test subjects, researchers utilized a “long-acting, slow-effective release” antiretroviral (referred to as LASER ART) therapeutic strategy in conjunction with gene-editing (done with a tool called CRISPR-Cas9) to remove the HIV DNA from the mice’s cells. The HIV virus replicates by inserting its genome directly into the host cell’s genome. The LASER ART treatment stopped the HIV virus from replicating, while the gene-editing removed the HIV DNA from the infected genomes. Together, the two therapies completely removed HIV in roughly one-third of the mice tested. While that number may seem low, researchers say that there is potential that the treatment could be 100 percent effective on mice within two to three years. These results are a promising step towards a human cure for HIV.

HIV/AIDS Reduction & Potential Roadblocks

HIV affects millions of individuals every day around the world. Over 70 percent of affected individuals reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these individuals do not have the financial means to purchase HIV/AIDS treatments; given this, it is of the utmost importance to have a cheap, efficient, alternative solution to cure HIV/AIDS.

While the issue of HIV/AIDS is very prevalent in a number of countries, many positive steps have moved towards the reduction of disease prevalence in recent years. Such positive steps have included preventative measures such as educating individuals about HIV transmission as well as on the benefits of using condoms during sexual intercourse. There has also been work done to help increase the availability of health services that can give individuals a proper HIV diagnosis (roughly 50 percent of individuals with HIV do not know that they have the virus). The push for a cure, however, has proved difficult, and while this latest innovation brings great promise, there are some potential roadblocks to implementation. Assuming that humans can use the treatment, researchers must still access whether it will work for those in rural areas where the disease is often most prevalent. Finding an effective treatment is only one part of the problem. There is still a lack of trained individuals and sufficient infrastructure to help administer the treatments currently available and a cure for HIV will not solve that part of the problem.

Potential Impact on Global Poverty

If development goes smoothly, this new treatment has incredible potential to solve one of the biggest problems currently plaguing both the developed and developing world. While the treatment requires a lot of testing and work, researchers have taken an important step towards curing a disease that many previously believed to be incurable. In time, HIV may no longer be a lifelong burden, but rather something that someone can eradicate with two simple injections.

– Kiran Matthias
Photo: Flickr

Viral Diagnostic Technology
In today’s world, there are about 35 million people living with HIV. New HIV treatments are in near-constant development, but monitoring their effectiveness is almost as important as the treatment itself. By keeping track of what is working (and what is not), new and more effective HIV treatments can be developed, and regimens can be individualized to see what is working the best for each patient.

Viral load tests (tests that measure the concentration of the HIV virus in the blood) are done to monitor treatment. If there are over 1000 copies of the virus per mL of blood, then doctors will adjust the patient’s HIV treatment. Unfortunately, in the current method of viral load testing, results can take weeks to come back to doctors, making it difficult for them to make decisions about adjusting care. Not only that, but they can be expensive and hard to administer in a clinical setting.

Kathyrn Kundrod and Jay Fraser, undergraduate students at Lehigh University, were part of a team that developed a microfluidic device to measure viral load. Their project is called Viral Diagnostic Technology. With this innovation, only a small sample volume of blood would be needed for testing, and it could be done more quickly and efficiently. If the entire system comes to fruition, the test could be done on-site with doctor and patient.

As Kundrod says, their device is “more portable, easier to operate, and less expensive than other approaches currently in use or in development.” In fact, the estimated price tag for each unit of this Viral Diagnostic Technology is about $2.38.

The science behind the development has to do with how the HIV is being looked for.
In a nutshell (and for those who aren’t engineers), the device would run an electrical current cyclically between two electrodes, through the porous membrane of the microfluidic device. If there is a high concentration of HIV in the bloodstream, antibodies (specifically, anti-gp120) built into the device will capture it, basically building little antibody walls around the virus. These little walls keep the electrical current from making it to the second electrode, thereby reducing peak current values.

In an even smaller nutshell, if there is a certain amount of HIV in the bloodstream, the “peak current values” of the Viral Diagnostic Technology device will be lower, and the doctor will know to adjust HIV treatment. If there is no HIV (or below a certain amount of HIV), peak current values will be higher and the doctor will know to continue treatment in the same way.

The innovative design, created by five students at LeHigh, earned first place at the National Institute of Health’s Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge. It will therefore receive $20,000 to advance the development of their project.

The group, which is now known as Cyclic Solutions, hopes to have their design for Viral Diagnostic Technology procured by an organization such as UNITAID or the World Health Organization (WHO). With over 15 million people globally currently receiving HIV treatment, a device that can measure its effects in low-resource settings could save millions of lives.

Emily Dieckman

Sources: Lehigh University, News Medical, NIH 1, NIH 2
Photo: Flickr

A professor of bio-molecular engineering has announced that he is close to perfecting a fully-functional HIV vaccine.

Professor Phil Berman is a pioneer in the arena of recombinant vaccines. He has been searching for an HIV vaccine for almost thirty years. Since his arrival at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2006, he has received millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health in pursuit of his goal.

This is not the first time Berman has announced major progress. According to a press release from the university, the current vaccine is a refinement of an older iteration called AIDSVAX, which Berman came up with while he was working for the biotech company Genetech in the 1990s. Between 2003 and 2009, AIDSVAX underwent trials on 16,000 people in Thailand. During the trials, it demonstrated a 31 percent success rate at preventing new HIV infections. This is still the only time an HIV vaccine has had a success rate that high.

However, at a success rate of 31 percent, it is not quite ready to put on the market. Regulatory agencies require at least a 60 percent success rate before a vaccine can be released to the general public. Berman has been slowly reworking the original vaccine’s formula to be more potent and effective. HIV is a virus capable of spontaneously mutating, so the vaccine needs to have “broadly neutralizing antibodies” to attack any and all HIV pathogens.

HIV and AIDS killed roughly 1.5 million people in 2013. This number is dwarfed by the people infected by HIV and AIDS. According to UNAIDS, 35 million people are living with HIV and AIDS, and of those 35 million, 19 million did not know they were infected.

Part of what makes HIV so terrifying is the stigma associated with it. Many still view the disease as a death sentence, and most people still consider it a shameful thing. The attitude around the disease makes people unlikely to get themselves tested. Despite growing testing campaigns by many governments, there is still an epidemic of people who are unaware they are infected by HIV or AIDS.

Berman’s vaccine is different from the other vaccines currently being researched. It focuses on a particular sugar on the virus’s complex surface. If successful, the antibodies in the vaccine should be able to penetrate the virus and bind to it before the host is infected.

“The kind of vaccine we’re making is to prevent infection all together, so that the virus never establishes this big library of variants,” Berman said to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We’re trying to create complete protection so that the virus never gets a foothold.”

If Berman succeeds, the battle against the global pandemic of AIDS and HIV will have an invaluable new weapon. Someday soon, it may even join the ranks of smallpox or the Black Death – a disease remembered, but no longer experienced.

– Marina Middleton

Sources: Science.Mic, University of California, Santa Cruz
Photo: Fenway Institute

Researchers at Philadelphia’s Temple University made medical history this week when they announced they were able to successfully remove HIV from human cells. Converting infected cells into uninfected cells, this breakthrough is revolutionary, as the current therapy simply suppresses the virus, as opposed to eliminating it.

More than 35 million people are HIV-positive today, two-thirds of whom are living in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than one in six people are infected. HIV, a virus which attacks the immune system, destroys  T-cells and CD4 cells, which are necessary for the body to fight infection and disease.

Once the virus kills enough of these cells, the body will become unable to attack against intruders — the final stage of the HIV virus, or AIDS.

While modern antiretroviral medication works to prevent the virus from reaching AIDS-status, there are still no known cures for the disease. Even though the current treatment has reduced the death rate of HIV by about 80 percent, drug use to combat the disease is incredibly expensive, as therapy can cost several thousand dollars per month.

Due to financial burden, the World Health Organization estimates about 19 million HIV-positive people still lack proper access to this medicine. And it still doesn’t eliminate the disease entirely; once the body is infected with HIV, it is there for life.

Now, however, we may see a change.

“We have a cure for HIV elimination,” said Dr. Kamel Khalili, head of the research team at Temple’s Center for Neurovirology. “It’s very exciting.”

Still, the team must figure out how to take the procedure from slides in the lab to animals and, eventually, humans.

Until then, the future of the virus still remains ominous. According to a recent study found by the CDC, the incidence of HIV-infection in young gay and bisexual men in America has doubled since 2002.

While new preventives — such as the new VivaGel condom, which is supposed to “inactivate” up to 99.9 percent of HIV — have hit the market, no recent findings have been quite as promising as Temple University’s.

“This is one important step on the path toward a permanent cure for AIDS,” Khalili said. “It’s an exciting discovery, but it’s not yet ready to go into the clinic. It’s a proof of concept that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Nick Magnanti

Sources: New Now Next, DW, Huffington Post,, The Grio, CBS Philly
Photo: Fox News

hiv/aids cure
Despite the death of leading AIDS researchers on flight MH17, there is reason for hope in the field of AIDS research. Progress has been made in the search for the HIV/AIDS cure. Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark performed an experiment in which they gave six HIV-infected people an old cancer drug called romidepsin.

Romidepsin is a last-resort treatment for certain types of skin cancers and lymphomas. It works by blocking enzymes created by cancer cells, thus preventing them from multiplying and encouraging healthy cell growth. Side effects of romidepsin include irregular hearing rhythm, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and anemia.

The drug could possibly be used in AIDS treatment because the HIV virus settles deep within hidden “reservoirs” in cells where it lies dormant, making it impossible for current HIV medications to reach it. When romidepsin was administered to people with HIV/AIDS, the drug was successful in bringing the dormant virus out of hiding. The hope is that when the sleeping virus is unearthed, the body’s immune system will be able to fight against and eliminate it. Currently, there are medications available to keep AIDS in check, but if a patient stops taking his or her medication, the virus emerges from these reservoirs and wreaks havoc on the body unless treatment is started again.

In Oslo, the biotechnical company Bionor Pharma has been studying romidepsin along with another drug known as vacc-4x, which is administered after romidepsin has been used. The vacc-4x is supposed to aid the immune system in killing the virus. This process has been named the “kick-and-kill” method.

Bionor Pharma has announced that they have completed the pilot study for the kick-and-kill method and are ready to move on to the second part of the study. The second stage will involve treating HIV-infected patients with romidepsin and vacc-4x for three weeks. After three weeks, all HIV treatment will cease and the patients will be monitored to see if the virus rebounds.

While AIDS can be a manageable disease for people with access to quality health care, it affects 35 million people worldwide and only 13.9 million are receiving treatment. Most people affected by AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five people have HIV/AIDS. If people infected with the HIV virus leave it untreated, it will develop into AIDS, and because treatment is daily and expensive, most people in Sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford it. Many advancements have been made to treat HIV/AIDS since the 1990s, but just as important as finding a cure is making sure all those infected have access to it.

Taylor Lovett

Sources: American Cancer Society, Avert, Boston Globe
Photo: iFarmaci