Just a few short decades ago, an HIV diagnosis, the virus that causes AIDS, meant an almost certain death sentence. In fact, an estimated 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic.
Though we have a better understanding of the virus now than we did thirty years ago, the prevalence of HIV / AIDS is still frighteningly prominent despite advances in our scientific understanding of HIV and its prevention and treatment as well as years of significant effort by the global health community and leading government and civil society organizations.
While a cure for the disease has yet to be discovered, effective treatments with antiretroviral drugs can control the virus so that people with HIV can enjoy healthy lives and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
But, recent collaborative efforts between the pharmaceutical company Sanofi and the US National Institutes of Health have yielded promising results that may be an indicator that a cure is right around the corner.
According to a press release from the International Aids Society, scientists have made an “exciting breakthrough”, having discovered an active antibody that has been proven to fight off HIV strains with 90% efficiency, thereby preventing infection that comes with the strains in all primates, humans inclusive.
This newly discovered antibody attacks the vital points of the virus rendering it useless and inactive in the body of the host.
Human trials of the antibody will begin in 2018. If the case studies yield the same results as earlier animal trials, this could finally be the solution to controlling the HIV / AIDS epidemic that has long plagued our world.
Understanding HIV / AIDS
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus and attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells (T cells), which help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body, making the person more likely to get other infections or infection-related cancers. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease.
Strains of HIV and their varieties are difficult to treat as they mutate and change appearance rapidly, often times becoming resistant to the drugs.
Researchers found that after years of infection, a handful of patient’s bodies had developed powerful weapons called “broadly neutralizing antibodies”. A mutation in the human body with the ability to attack critical points in the HIV strains thereby killing large swathes of strains.
Since making this discovery, researchers have been trying to use broadly neutralizing antibodies as a way to treat HIV, or prevent infection in the first place.
In an article posted on BBC News, Dr. Gary Nabel, the Chief Scientific Officer at Sanofi and one of the report authors, stated that the recently discovered antibody has the longest expectancy of any discovered to date, meaning it can live longer in the host’s body.
“They are more potent and have greater breadth than any single naturally occurring antibody that’s been discovered,” said Nabel, adding, “we’re getting 99% coverage, and getting coverage at very low concentrations of the antibody.”
Its efficiency has been proven to be second to none, as the antibody attacks 90% of the virus strains.
For the study, researchers from Harvard Medical School, The Scripps Research Institute, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted experiments on 24 monkeys. They found that none of those that were given the tri-specific antibody developed an infection when they were later injected with the virus. A statistic that Nabel calls, “an impressive degree a protection.”
President of the International Aids Society, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, says that this is an exciting breakthrough in medicine, and believes there may be implied applications beyond just HIV.
“These super-engineered antibodies seem to go beyond the natural and could have more applications than we have imagined to date,” said Bekker, adding, “it’s early days yet, and as a scientist I look forward to seeing the first trials get off the ground in 2018.”
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