To cheers, HIV drugs trial sets AIDS campaign on new course

July 18, 2011 by Richard Ingham

Researchers at a world AIDS conference Monday stood up to cheer a trial proving that early use of drugs to treat HIV all but eliminates the risk of transmitting the killer virus through heterosexual intercourse.

Experts said the bold experiment marked a turning point in a disease that has claimed some 30 million lives and left 34 million people infected with .

They said widening access to would deliver a double whammy: millions of people infected by the (HIV) would be saved and millions of new infections would be averted.

But they stressed that the message of safe sex that has shadowed AIDS for the past three decades should not be abandoned.

And before "treatment as prevention" is launched as a strategy, it would need carefully crafted guidelines and billions of dollars in support, at a time when funding for AIDS is faltering.

"We are at an important tipping point," Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told AFP.

"There is an extraordinary window of opportunity and the sooner we act on it and the more robustly we act on it, the quicker we'll achieve the goal of turning around the epidemic," he said.

"Now's the time to translate this science into action that can break the back of the epidemic," the group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said. "The clock is ticking."

Casting aside their traditional reserve, delegates cheered and gave a standing ovation to Myron Cohen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who led the landmark HPTN 052 trial.

The data had been initially unveiled to the press in May on the orders of monitors, who said the results were so startling that all participants had to be advised of the outcome on ethical grounds.

Its presentation at the world's top scientific conference on AIDS, and concurrent publication in the peer-reviewed , now enshrines it as a benchmark to which policymakers will refer.

HPTN 052 was carried out among 1,763 couples in nine countries where one partner was infected with HIV while the other was HIV-free.

When the infected partner was given an early start on HIV drugs, this slashed the risk of transmitting the virus to the other by 96 percent -- a figure readily comparable to the effectiveness of a condom.

Alongside the HPTN presentation were two other trials, made public last week, which found a reduction of up to 73 percent in risk when the non-infected partner, as opposed to the infected partner, took the antiretrovirals.

Experts said many tasks lay ahead in transposing a trial, which takes place in carefully controlled conditions where couples are counselled and supported, into the messy reality of everyday life.

The UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday said it would delay plans to revise its guidelines on antiretrovirals to give it time to ponder the radically altered landscape.

However, the use-a-condom message will remain in place, said the WHO's Gottfried Hirnschall.

"Messaging is critical and clearly we not just talking about a single intervention, we are talking about a combination prevention," he told a press conference.

"We would never at this point want to say, let's do just one thing and say 'don't use condoms'."

Another question is funding. Around 16 billion dollars have been earmarked to fight AIDS this year, compared to needs estimated at 22 to 24 billion dollars.

"The priority right now is reaching people who really need treatment," argued Michel Kazatchkine, head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

"(...) Putting everyone on treatment is not a prospect, either from the resource point of view or from the operational point of view. Half of the people who are infected aren't even aware of their (infection) status."

The four-day conference, staged once every two years by the International Society (IAS), gathers 5,500 specialists, ranging from virologists to pharmacologists and disease trackers. It ends on Wednesday in Rome.

Explore further: HIV prevention: Drugs even more effective than thought

Related Stories

HIV prevention: Drugs even more effective than thought

July 18, 2011
Using HIV treatment drugs to reduce the risk of spreading the AIDS virus may be even more effective than thought, according to new analysis from a landmark trial presented here on Monday.

Major AIDS forum gets down to work amid surge of good news

July 17, 2011
A global medical forum on AIDS got down to business on Sunday for four days of debate on powerful new weapons to combat a pandemic that in 30 years has claimed as many lives as a World War.

AIDS: HIV drugs boost prevention hopes

July 13, 2011
Heterosexuals who take daily AIDS drugs reduce the risk of being infected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by nearly two-thirds, ground-breaking studies said on Wednesday.

Treating HIV-infected people with antiretrovirals significantly reduces transmission to partners

May 12, 2011
Men and women infected with HIV reduced the risk of transmitting the virus to their sexual partners by taking oral antiretroviral medicines when their immune systems were relatively healthy, according to findings from a large-scale ...

Recommended for you

Paris spotlight on latest in AIDS science

July 21, 2017
Some 6,000 HIV experts gather in Paris from Sunday to report advances in AIDS science as fading hopes of finding a cure push research into new fields.

Scientists elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV in calves

July 20, 2017
Scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health have achieved a significant step forward, eliciting broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) to HIV by immunizing calves. The findings offer insights for HIV vaccine ...

Heart toxin reveals new insights into HIV-1 integration in T cell genome

July 20, 2017
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1 may have evolved to integrate its genetic material into certain immune-cell-activating genes in humans, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

Scientists capture first high-resolution image of key HIV protein transitional state

July 13, 2017
A new, three-dimensional snapshot of HIV demonstrates the radical structural transformations that enable the virus to recognize and infect host cells, according to a new study led by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute ...

Barrier to autoimmune disease may open door to HIV, study suggests

July 11, 2017
Researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine have discovered that a process that protects the body from autoimmune disease also prevents the immune system from generating antibodies that can neutralize the ...

Team tests best delivery mode for potential HIV vaccine

June 20, 2017
For decades, HIV has successfully evaded all efforts to create an effective vaccine but researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (LJI) are steadily inching ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.