Are We Any Closer to a Cure for AIDS?



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In recognition of World AIDS Day,
it’s especially important to reflect on how far we’ve come since the
epidemic began in the 1980s. We have decades of research under our belt,
but how close are we to an actual cure? Here’s a brief rundown on where
we’ve been, what’s worked, and the future of AIDS treatment.

HIV History

In 1981,
we became aware of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the U.S.,
and the final stages of the disease later known as Acquired Immune
Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Here’s a timeline:
  • By year’s end there were nearly 500 reported cases and over 100
    deaths attributed to the disease but effective treatment for the illness
    was still an on-going battle for physicians and scientists.
  • Six years later (in 1987) the first antiretroviral drug, AZT,
    was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That same
    year, the FDA authorized the first human testing of a candidate vaccine
    for HIV.
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  • The year 1994 saw AIDS as the leading cause of death among Americans ages 25-44.
  • In 1997, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    (CDC) reported the first substantial decline in AIDS deaths. This was
    due largely to the use of “highly active antiretroviral therapy” (protease inhibitors) or HAART. AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. declined by 47 percent from the previous year.

The New Millennium Brings Promise

The 2000s brought promise of more affordable treatments for sufferers in this country and around the world, as well as a focus on early diagnosis, better access to care and treatment,
and even hints at a cure. But given we’re now decades out from the
first diagnoses, just how close are we to the cure for AIDS? Probably
not as close as we’d hope.

In April, Danish researchers said they could be mere months away from a cure, but U.S. researchers discovered a major flaw in their treatment strategy.
The idea behind their vaccine is to train immune cells known as T cells
to spot and attack the very earliest HIV-infected cells in someone’s
body so it can either prevent infection or help those infected fight it.
But testing in the U.S. was halted when a safety review found that slightly more study participants who had received the vaccine in the 2009 trial later became infected with HIV.

“There’s a lot of exciting work going on to find a cure, but despite some rare exceptions, a cure will still take time,” says Dr. Kenneth Mayer, Director of HIV Prevention Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

What’s the Future of AIDS Treatment?

While unfortunately there’s still isn’t a cure for AIDS in 2013, there are promising treatments (antiretroviral drugs) that have helped at least some keep the disease at bay.
“Treatment has improved remarkably over the past 15 years,
since the first effective combination therapies were developed,” says
Dr. Mayer. “We now can treat HIV with more than 20 medicines with
several combination treatments co-formulated so that patients can be
treated with one pill a day.”
If not a cure for the disease, scientists
say they’re close to developing a vaccine (several trials are already
underway) which could potentially change the future for generations to
come.

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