An AIDS conference has reported small but key breakthroughs in the uncertain journey towards finding a cure for the disease. The use of cancer treatments is seen as a potential weapon for combatting the illness.
The International Aids conference left the world's 34 million HIV sufferers with a sliver of hope as it drew to a close on Friday.
The keynote speakers at the six-day conference in Washington included former US President Bill Clinton and singer Elton John. But the meat of the event centered around three potentially breakthrough studies, although researchers pointedly avoided using the word “cure” at the conference when discussing the findings.
One experiment, carried out on 12 patients in France, involved the prompt treatment of HIV patients with antiretroviral drugs within 10 weeks of contracting the disease and then ceasing treatment three years later. This group of patients has been able to stave off the effects of the virus for a median period of six years.
"These results suggest that the antiretroviral treatment should be started very early after infection," said Charline Bacchus, lead researcher for the study, which was carried out by France's national AIDS research agency ANRS.
"Six years after interruption of the treatment, patients treated early on in the post-infection period present a perfect ability to control the HIV infection," she added.
Can cancer treatments cure HIV?
Another study involved stem cell transplants on two HIV-positive men as a treatment for blood cancer, from which the patients also suffered. Since the transplants, both men have experienced a sharp decline in their HIV antibodies. There is strong evidence suggesting that, in both cases, the virus has gone.
The case is different from the famous case of the “Berlin patient” Timothy Brown, an American who is considered cured of HIV since receiving a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a rare immunity from HIV.
The patients in the new study did not receive transplants from donors immune from HIV. But researchers believe that the fact that the men were treated with antiretroviral drugs during their transplants meant that the donor cells were protected from HIV infection until these cells were able to protect the men with new immune defenses.
A third study revolved around the use of a cancer drug, the chemotherapy drug vorinostat, to eliminate the HIV virus from patients. The experiment, which was also published on Wednesday in the British journal Nature, was described at the conference by lead researcher David Margolis from the University of North Carolina.
"You cannot argue with the value of the goal and we cannot get there without working on it and I cannot say how long it will take," Margolis said. "But I think there is a clear path and we can make progress."
sej/jm (AFP, dpa)