10 Greatest HIV Discoveries of 2011
1. Two major new drugs promise to make life easier for HIVers.
In January pharmacies began offering Egrifta, a daily injection that reduces the deep belly fat that surrounds organs like the liver and stomach as a side effect of anti-HIV drugs. Complera, which combines Edurant, Viread, and Emtriva in a single pill and is meant for first-time HIV medication users, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August.
2. Researchers discover breast-feeding is an option.
Many mothers prefer breast-feeding their infants to using formula, but that option is not always available to HIV-positive women. However, a study presented at March’s Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston found that giving infants a daily dose of nevirapine for the first six months of life halved their risk of contracting HIV from their mothers (compared with a shorter-term regimen), and among HIV-positive women with higher T-cell counts, there was a 75% reduction in transmission rates. Moreover, while mother-to-child HIV transmission is still possible through breast-feeding, another study indicated that antibodies found in breast milk, when isolated, can neutralize HIV and kill HIV-infected cells. While incorporated into breast milk, the antibodies do little to block the virus, because of IgG, another antibody, but scientists are evaluating how to enhance the HIV-combating antibodies.
3. A vaccine may have been found.
Scientists in Spain are testing an HIV vaccine that has proved more powerful than previous ones that have gone to trial. After a year of testing in humans, 95% of the 24 patients built an immune-system defense against the virus, and 85% of them sustained that for a year. Past vaccine trials had shown only 25% of those developed such a defense. The vaccine is specialized to protect against a subtype of HIV that is more prevalent in Europe, North America, and South America.
8. Gene therapy gets turned on its head.
Many have looked how gene therapy can change the way HIV affects a person’s immune system, but a new theory is exploring the role of gene therapy in HIV transmission. In March researchers published a study, based on computer simulations, postulating that HIVers receiving gene therapy to suppress viral load would be less likely to transmit HIV to a sexual partner but would transmit the therapeutic material, weakening the virus’s effect if the partner did contract it.
9. Doctors discover HIV helps treat cancer.
When chemotherapy failed to treat William Ludwig’s leukemia, doctors tried a new method: They removed a billion of his T cells, infused them with a disabled form of HIV that allowed them to carry cancer-fighting genes, and placed them back in his body. The risky move essentially taught his immune system to kill cancer cells. His doctors are not willing to go so far as to say he is cured, but his leukemia remains in remission.
10. Turns out, the truth is in the hair.
Researchers found that measuring the levels of Reyataz in people’s hair may be the best way to see how well they are sticking to their treatments. In a recent study, 77% of women who had previously had problems adhering to their drug regimen said they had taken at least 95% of their Reyataz doses. A quick sampling of their hair proved the opposite: Fewer than 20% had actually stuck to the regimen.