The researchers, however, stressed the importance of early diagnosis and treatment for HIV patients. Indeed, early diagnosis and treatment can be a lifesaver, as evidenced earlier this month when it was announced that a baby born with HIV had been “cured” a few years later because doctors quickly treated the newborn with a larger-than-usual dose of HIV drugs at birth after the baby’s mother, who did not know she was infected, passed it onto her newborn infant. Doctors pointed out that had the mother known she had HIV prior to giving birth, she could have been pre-treated with drugs to protect the baby against HIV.
Today’s report further reinforces the notion that, in some patients, quick treatment may prevent the virus from taking hold in the body, a finding that was confirmed by the 14 HIV patients who received quick treatment with HIV drugs. According to Asier Sáez-Cirión of Frances Pasteur Institute, and colleagues who wrote the report, quick treatment may also stop the virus from mutating.
Approximately 34 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS – and around 25 million have died from it. Although no vaccine against it currently exists, there are a variety of potent antiviral medications that can effectively suppress HIV and keep the infected person healthy. Nevertheless, once a person is infected with HIV, the virus continues to remain dormant in the body, rearing its ugly head if the antiviral drugs are stopped.
Statistically, less than one percent of HIV patients are able to control the virus on their own after they stop taking drugs, which prompted Sáez-Cirión and colleagues to launch a study to try and find out how that one percent does it.
As part of the study, the team analyzed a database of 3,500 HIV patients, of which approximately 1,000 had begun taking HIV drugs after being infected for 6 months. Another 70 patients had stopped taking the drugs as soon the virus was under control, while some patients just wanted to take a break from the drugs by participating in a trial that allowed them to do so even if they had unpleasant side effects.
The research team found that all of the patients responded very well after stopping the drugs – and within three months, the virus reached “undetectable” levels, meaning it was barely active and not replicating in the body.
Accordingly, the patients were able to stop taking the drugs and stay healthy while the virus remained at low levels. Blood tests of the patients showed that the virus didn’t appear to be attacking the immune system cells like it usually does, with doctors calling it a “functional cure” in those patients who were able to stop the drugs despite the virus remaining in the body and possibly returning years later.
“Our results show that early and prolonged (drug therapy) may allow some individuals with a rather unfavorable background to achieve long-term infection control and may have important implications in the search for a functional HIV cure,” the researchers wrote.
Not all patients who get quick treatment are able to control the virus by stopping medications once it appears to be under control. According to researchers, only around five to 15 percent of HIV patients manage to successfully do it, as most end up getting symptoms of the infection once they stop taking the drugs.