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Ray of hope as new vaccine 'cures' five Aids patients in seven months

Health & Science

There is hope for over 37 million people infected with HIV globally after five people were reported to be virus-free after undergoing treatment.

According to a study published in New Scientist, a new vaccine allowed the patients to stop taking regular antiretroviral (ARV) drugs – the current method of suppressing HIV - and they were introduced to vaccines that were able to eliminate HIV cells.

The study announced that the five patients were free of HIV seven months after they were put on the treatment.

The researchers say the vaccine works by teaching the human immune system to control the disease without needing medication, calling it a "functional cure".

The study included 13 participants who had taken ARVs for close to three years on average - all within six months of being infected.

The researchers theorised that although the drugs kept down HIV levels, they limited the virus' ability to integrate into their chromosomes, leaving them with relatively small "reservoirs" of infected cells.

New Scientist, a respected American science magazine, quoted Beatriz Mothe, a clinician at IrsiCaixa Aids Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain, who presented the results at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, saying the results are proof of concept that through therapeutic vaccination, we can really re-educate our T cells to control the virus.

"This is the first time that we see this is possible in humans," said Mothe.

Scientists injected the participants with a series of three shots of the vaccine and they stopped taking ARVs.

The scientists combined two innovative vaccines for HIV with a drug called Romidepsin that is usually used to treat cancer

After four weeks, eight of the patients saw the virus rebound. But the other five patients have gone six to 28 weeks without having to restart the treatment.

The virus became temporarily undetectable, but it has never gone above 2,000 copies per millilitre, which is the criterion to restart treatment.

In over 30 years, scientists have been on a quest to find a cure for HIV, and this new possibility could be one that breaks the many fails and hurdles the search has always presented.

Last year, a team of scientists from five UK universities came up with a therapy that eliminates all strains of the virus.

According to the Telegraph newspaper in UK, a 44-year-old British man is currently going through a treatment that targets HIV even in its dormant state, and if the treatment destroys the cells, the man will become the first person in the world to be "cured" of HIV.

"The virus is completely undetectable in the man's blood, although that could be a result of regular drugs. However if the dormant cells are also cleared it could represent the first complete cure," reads the article.

The trial is being undertaken by researchers from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King's College London. The man is one of 50 people currently under treatment.

The cure for HIV has remained elusive over the years, and even though the invention of anti-retroviral therapies (Art) was seen as a break through, Art cannot spot dormant infected T-cells, hence cannot stop spread of the virus.

The new therapy works in two stages. In the first stage, a vaccine helps the body recognise the HIV-infected cells so it can clear them out. Secondly, a new drug called Vorinostat activates the dormant T-cells so they can be spotted by the immune system.

The man going through the treatment has gone through a series of tests, which showed no sign of the virus.

"It has worked in the laboratory and there is good evidence it will work in humans too, but we must stress we are still a long way from any actual therapy," said Prof Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician at Imperial College London in a report compiled by the Telegraph in the UK.

The UK scientists say by 2018, they will know if the therapy has completely eliminated HIV.

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