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EXPLAINED: How Long To An HIV Cure? As GSK Therapy Heads For Human Trials, Where We Are In Fight Against Virus

About 3.8 crore people around the world were living with HIV at the end of 2020, according to the WHO

About 3.8 crore people around the world were living with HIV at the end of 2020, according to the WHO

UK-based GSK has said it's ready to launch human trials of its HIV cure by early next year, but it could be still some time before it hits the markets

It’s been close to four decades since HIV infection was first diagnosed by medical science. Yet, no cure or vaccinations exist for it so far even though advancements in treatments have reduced the infection to the level of a manageable chronic health condition. However, as experts note, the stigma around HIV remains, making the finding of a cure or a vaccine against it a top priority for researchers. Researchers are pursuing several strategies against HIV with UK-based pharma major GSK the latest to announce that it is ready to launch human trials for its therapy for curing the infection. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is The Treatment GSK Is Working On?

According to reports in British media, pharma major GSK is looking to launch trials in 2022 for its therapy against HIV, which has been found to be successful in animal trials on non-human primates.

Interestingly, the treatment is designed to “wake up" a latent HIV virus within people’s immune cells in a way that it identifies itself. Once that is done, it can be targeted for neutralisation, although details of how the entire process would work were not immediately available.

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GSK says it has been working on the “Induce and Reduce" approach on HIV through ViiV Healthcare, a specialist HIV company that it majority owns with Pfizer and Shionogi Ltd as shareholders. This strategy, GSK adds, “attempts to make any hidden HIV visible to the immune system and attempts to enhance the patient’s immune system to combat the virus".

“The idea is that you have to wake up the latent virus and try to get rid of it," Dr Kimberly Smith, head of research & development at GSK’s HIV health division ViiV Healthcare, was quoted as telling UK publication The Daily Telegraph. “If it works in humans, then the question will be how do we clear it away once we’ve induced it," she added.

Is There A Cure For HIV?

HIV, short for human immunodeficiency virus, has killed more than 3.6 crore people worldwide since the virus was first identified in the 1980s, according to the World Health Organisation, which says that there are about 38 million people living with HIV at the end of 2020.

But while the virus has been known to medical science for close to four decades, WHO notes that there is still “no cure for HIV infection". Better access to effective HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care though has resulted in HIV infection having become “a manageable chronic health condition" with patients now able to “lead long and healthy lives", the global health agency says.

There are several cures and preventive vaccines against HIV that scientists are working on although none can as yet be described as guaranteeing a surefire solution. As the Treatment Action Group (TAG), an independent community-based research and policy think tank, notes, “It’s important to appreciate that at the current time, none of these studies is expected to produce a cure for HIV infection — they represent research working toward that goal".

In February this year, it was reported by non-profit IAVI and the US-based Scripps Research that the first human clinical trials “testing a novel vaccine approach to prevent HIV has produced promising results". The Phase-I clinical trial “showed success in stimulating production of rare immune cells needed to start the process of generating antibodies against the fast-mutating virus".

More recently, in August 2021, Moderna, the company whose mRNA vaccine against Covid-19 has been shown to provide a high-level of protection, said that it was set to launch human trials of its experimental mRNA HIV vaccine.

When Will We Have A Cure/Vaccine Against HIV?

Talking about the GSK trials, Dr Smith of ViiV Healthcare suggested that there may be still some ways to go for their cure to finally hit the markets. “Will we get to a cure in the 20, 30-year timeframe? I certainly hope so," she said.

GSK says retroviruses like HIV “are notoriously hard to kill" and that “development of human medicines is a long process that can take up to 10 years or more and usually involves thousands of patients", even though it notes that AZT — the first medicine for the treatment of HIV and AIDS — was rolled out by it at breakneck speed at a time when “the need for a new medicine was urgent".

“It’s been a long battle against HIV and things are much better, people are living long lives. But, it’s still a burden. It’s still massively stigmatised. And so getting to a cure, we feel like it’s within reach," Dr Smith told Daily Telegraph.

The difficulty of creating a cure or vaccine for HIV is also noted by the Scripps Research, which says that “for decades now, HIV researchers have pursued the holy grail of stimulating the immune system to create rare but powerful antibodies that can neutralise diverse strains of HIV".

And, while Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in January this year that “the uniquely challenging year of 2020 for all of society proved to be an extraordinary proof-of-concept period for Moderna" and it’s mRNA platform — the mRNA jabs created by the company as also Pfizer are the first such vaccines to have been rolled out to the public — matters on the HIV cure front haven’t been helped by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As TAG notes, clinical research into HIV cures and vaccines were “significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic" although “research is restarting as the situation improves in some areas".

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first published:November 30, 2021, 17:16 IST