SEATTLE — HIV/AIDS is a life-threatening disease that may be under control in developed countries but is still considered an epidemic in developing countries, where low access to healthcare is the norm, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, about 24.7 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were living with HIV. While organizations working to give antiretroviral treatment to victims of HIV exist, only about 39 percent of infected adults were on antiretroviral treatment in 2013. This poses the question: when will scientists reach a cure for AIDS?
While antiretroviral treatment is not a definite cure for AIDS, individuals undergoing treatment can reduce the amount of HIV in their bodies and continue to live long and healthy lives. With increasingly improved research, people no longer have to take a large number of pills, and side effects are much easier to cope with. However, people in developing countries might not have easy access to this kind of care, so a cure or vaccine might be a more efficient way to deal with the disease.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for HIV. There have, however, been a few attempts at creating one. In 2009, a tested vaccine that prevented 31 percent of new infections emerged, but the research was halted due to dangerous risks. Research was also carried out in 2013 with the HVTN 505 vaccine, but the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases ended the trial when it failed to stop HIV infection or reduce HIV in the blood.
There have been a few instances in which HIV was thought to be cured. In a case called the Mississippi Baby, an infant was thought to hold answers to the cure for the HIV virus when she was given intense antiretroviral therapy within 30 hours of her birth. Doctors found no detectable levels of HIV in her system after the treatment, but the virus returned a few years later.
In the case of the famous ‘Berlin Patient,’ a man named Timothy Ray Brown, who was suffering from HIV and acute myeloid leukemia, went to Berlin to receive two bone marrow transplants from HIV-resistant donors in 2006 and was believed to be cured of leukemia with no sign of the HIV virus present in his system. Doctors are still not sure how Brown survived, as similar treatments have been performed since then with no success.
Researchers point to functional cures and sterilizing cures as two types of cures under discussion. A functional cure would suppress the amount of HIV in the body until it was low enough to not cause illness. Some scientists argue that the current antiretroviral treatment is already an effective functional cure, but others want to find a cure that does not require ongoing treatment. Sterilizing cures are those by which the HIV virus is completely eradicated from the body.
It is possible that a cure could be discovered by 2020. An organization called amfAR has started a countdown to a cure for AIDS research by 2020 by investing $100 million in research. The organization’s plan is the CURE Chart, which stands for Chart, Understand, Record, and Eliminate. It hopes to find reservoirs, understand how HIV viruses work, measure the amount and finally eradicate them. The director wants to make sure that all funds go toward research. There have also been increased investments in AIDS research with funding increasing between 2012 and 2014 from $88.1 million to $160.8 million.
Since the AIDS crisis in the 1980s in the United States, research and healthcare have come a long way to help manage the disease. However, since it remains an epidemic in many countries today, a prompt cure for AIDS is necessary.
– Emma Majewski