Could UK Scientists Find a Way to Eradicate HIV?

Peter Russell

October 03, 2016

A collaboration between some of the top biomedical researchers in the UK may be making progress towards finding a cure for HIV.

This month marks 6 years since five leading research establishments agreed to cooperate to try to find a solution to one of the world's greatest health challenges.

HIV is a virus infection that is treatable using antiretroviral therapy (ART). Essentially ART works by stopping the HIV virus from spreading and gives the body's immune system a chance to recover.

However, ART cannot cure HIV and if therapy stops, the virus will return.

Helping the Body's Immune System Fight Back

The new research, which is still in its early stages, involves using medication that encourages the body's immune system to fight and eradicate the disease.

Only 50 people are involved in the trial at this stage, but the Sunday Times reported on growing hopes for an eventual cure by citing the case of one of them, a 44-year-old London man who contracted HIV and has since undergone treatment. The paper reports that early tests have found that the virus is now "undetectable" in his blood.

However, the report also makes clear that the apparent absence of the virus could be attributable to the conventional medications that he has also been taking.

Putting Academic Rivalry Aside

The medical consortium was the idea of Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI), part of England’s National Institute for Health Research. He brought together leading doctors, scientists and mathematicians from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College London, King's College London and University College London.

At a meeting in October 2010 they agreed to put academic rivalry aside and contribute their expertise to finding a cure for HIV. Each member present agreed that they could provide a part of the jigsaw needed to find a cure, but could not achieve this in isolation, according to Mark Samuels.

He says in a statement: "The competitive nature of the relationship between Oxford and Cambridge, spanning 800 years, is widely known, but there is also competition running across all these leading universities, particularly in terms of vying for research funding.

"Yet here was an opportunity to put that competition aside, and collaborate on a global health challenge. As a result, the Medical Research Council awarded one of the first joint grants to these 5 leading biomedical research institutions.

"And in return each research centre provides its expertise to complete the jigsaw needed to find a cure for HIV - from patients, to the right doctors, the right diagnostic technology, the mathematician to analyse results and so on. CHERUB was born."

CHERUB stands for Collaborative HIV Eradication of Viral Reservoirs: UK BRC (biomedical research centres).

'Kick and Kill'

The joint study, known as 'Kick and Kill' involves researchers activating HIV infected cells which are 'asleep' using a cancer drug, which kick-starts the immune system into killing the HIV virus.

In a statement, Professor Jonathan Weber, chair of CHERUB Scientific Steering Committee and director of research for the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, says: "CHERUB has made great progress since it was born six years ago. We are now actively recruiting patients to test the 'Kick and Kill' theory as we have seen promising results in the lab.

"NOCRI was instrumental to this research starting. We are all thoroughly committed to finding a cure for HIV, but if the collaboration between this set of HIV researchers had not been prompted at that meeting 6 years ago, this simply would not have happened."

The early trial results should be treated with caution as they have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

An 'Ambitious Study'

Commenting in a statement, Ian Green, chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, says: " HIV treatment currently focuses on reducing the amount of HIV in the blood to 'undetectable' levels, meaning the patient stays well and the virus cannot be transmitted. However, there is still no cure for HIV, and we welcome this ambitious study which looks to eradicate the virus completely from the bodies of people living with HIV, instead of suppressing it. It's very early days, but we hope the results will help future studies on the way to finding a cure in years to come.

"Until that time it is still important that we continue to work towards ending HIV transmission and encouraging regular testing as we know that early diagnosis and effective treatment mean people living with HIV can expect long and healthy lives, and won't transmit the virus to others."

SOURCES:

National Institute for Health Research

Terrence Higgins Trust

The Sunday Times

Reviewed on October 03, 2016

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