Why Isn’t There A Cure For HIV?
Did you know that HIV is estimated to exist since the late 1800s?
Even so, it took people until 1983 to identify this virus as HIV and 30 years of failed attempts to create a cure or vaccine. Apparently, we have nothing finalized to show as a cure, even though treatment has advanced rapidly and is highly effective.
Why do you think this is the case?
At the end, it all comes down to the HIV virus itself. As you probably know already, viruses are not alive and cannot reproduce on their own. Instead, they attach themselves to our living cells and reproduce, which makes it impossible for the body to detect the infection in the first place.
As viruses are not parasites or bacteria, we cannot kill them with the traditional antibiotics. A cure for a virus would have to either destroy the human cells completely or somehow identify the virus inside the living cells and destroy it.
This is as impossible as it sounds. Yet, there are several interesting cases where patients were cured from HIV. Furthermore, researchers keep looking for ways to find a cure or vaccine and from what we can see, they may even accomplish this.
Finding an HIV Cure
These past few years, HIV cure has become a repeatedly flashing phrase across TV news and newspapers. Only few years back, in March 2013, Mississippi doctors reported that HIV vanished from a toddler infected at birth. It was only four months later that Boston researcher reported this same case in HIV infected men.
All three people are completely free form HIV and do not need to take any form of HIV treatment. Knowing this, the optimism among researchers increased, which led to continuous and increased researching in hope to find the cure.
Unfortunately, later that year, HIV returned in all three patients, which made the optimism evaporate. And even though the popular Boston’s patient who is now free from the virus for over 6 years has not been diagnosed again, people are seriously doubting that a cure will ever be invented.
Why are people so untrusting?
Well, the main reason for this is the false promise of health officials back in 1984 when HIV was discovered in the first place. Once they found out that HIV is the cause for AIDS, they assured us that a vaccine was two years away from being invented. Yet, there have been over 3 decades, and nothing has happened.
Fortunately, even though they failed to predict the rapid spreading of this virus, which resulted with over 99% death in untreated cases, treatment has now progressed to a level where patients diagnosed with HIV can fight off the disease and live an easier life.
AIDS has killed over 25 million people so far, and even though the number of annual deaths has decreased significantly, this is still one of the most deadly diseases known to people. According to the World Health Organization, AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death, being more deadly than the plague.
The Hypothetical Cure
It was more than a decade ago when scientists started discussing a hypothetical HIV cure. They settled on two basic approaches:
- Sterilizing cure, used to purge the body of the virus and destroy it altogether
- Functional cure, used to equip the body and help it control the virus on its own
So far, every attempt for these cures failed. In the case of sterilizing cure, researchers were not able to wake up all the white blood cells in the body, which pushed the patients’ immune system into self-destruction. In the second case, researchers acknowledged that the only barrier to cure is not latency, which means that the majority of people will probably not be able to control the infection.
Is There Hope?
Despite this, the Berlin patient happened back in 2008, bringing all our hopes up. This was and remains the first real hint that a cure for the virus may exist.
As we previously said, the Berlin patient suffered from leukemia and was treated for it, which resulted in curing HIV altogether. In this case, doctors found a compatible donor of bone marrow who carried a HIV-resistance mutation, known as CCR5. After this, the Berlin patient has remained off any HIV treatment and has no sign of the infection.
Still, even if the Berlin patient is cured altogether, this approach is not an option for the majority of HIV patients. Bone marrow transplants are not only expensive, bur very risky, too.
Despite our terrible track record with the disease, the Berlin patient is a proof-of-principle case that makes us believe that HIV is probably not as incurable as we think. Even though we haven’t come up with a cure or vaccine yet, hope remains.
At this point, most researchers focus on the traditional drug types, developing ways to scan repositories of medicines and target latent HIV. These methods are progressing and have already identified previously used compounds in treatment for cancer, epilepsy and alcoholism. Researchers are now repurposing them and testing them in HIV-infected patients.
Mathematicians are also big contributors to the new treatments, using math to take the data collected and fill in the gaps. Everything considered, it is now believed that the better option is a functional cure rather than a sterilizing cure.
Because it is easier to augment the body’s ability to control this infection than destroying it with only medicine. Studies are underway to make the immune cells resistant to the virus, mimicking the CCR5 mutation we mentioned above.
In the meantime, treatment is so highly developed, that people get the chance to wait for the cure while living a normal life. Transmissions are highly reduced, which controls the epidemic and reduces the mortality rate. Currently, 25% of all diagnosed HIV-positive people in the U.S. have suppressed viral levels by using targeted treatment.
There is no doubt that the medical progress is tremendous, which leaves us with hope that cure will soon come and save millions of people worldwide.