Where Are We Now: Recent Advances In HIV Research (That Have Taken Way Too Long)

Written by: Sara and Sasha

HIV could infect anyone but the virus has continued to disproportionately affect the LGBTQI+ community. According to the latest figures available with National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), around 2.69% homosexual men and 3.14% of transgender/Hijra persons across India are HIV-positive. Both Hijra persons and women involved in sex work are also 13 times more susceptible to HIV infections, due to the social conditions of their work and the still-growing efforts to intervene effectively at the community level.

In lieu of developments in clinical and academic research, several proposed cures are appearing on the horizon.

Thus far, the London Patient and the Berlin Patient have given hope to researchers, clinicians and people with HIV that stem-cell transplants could be a potential method to eradicate HIV. Ravindra Kumar Gupta, Ph.D., – a professor at the University of Cambridge and a lead author on the case study of the research findings around the London Patient – is cautiously optimistic though, stating that such treatment should be a “last resort for patients with HIV who also have life-threatening hematological malignancies”.

Heather Madsen, head of HIV Cure and Bioinformatics at ViiV Healthcare, also agrees that this is “dangerous therapy”, but that it provides “hope to the field” nonetheless. HIV is a tricky, stealthy virus to work with. “It has many ways to hide from the host immune system, and to persist in the body. Within the next decade, we should have the clinical tools to test combinations of agents that effectively induce the virus out of hiding, reduce the viral reservoirs and enhance the host immune system,” says Madsen. ViiV Healthcare’s monthly injectable therapy was recently approved by the FDA under regulatory review and progress has been made in ‘latency reversing’ agents – drugs that reactivate viral production, in order for the immune system to kill it.

A vaccine by Worcester HIV Vaccine, a biotech company dedicated to the development of a vaccine to prevent HIV infection, is a vaccine that has recently received FDA approval to launch Phase 1 trials. The company hopes to eradicate the disease by breaking the transmission cycle.

Another recent breakthrough, that has gone viral on twitter, is the “novel vaccine approach” coming out of a collaboration with IAVI and Scripps Research. According to the organisations, the vaccine approach aims to prevent HIV spread by “[stimulating] the production of the rare immune cells needed to generate antibodies against HIV”. It managed to successfully do so in 97% of participants. The new approach is, interestingly enough, based on the same underlying vaccine technology as the primary COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer.

These recent achievements do give the HIV-affected community and the greater population much to celebrate. But like this queer Twitter user pointed out,it sheds some much-needed light on the fact that the COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccine was developed in the shortest time period, while it took almost 40 years to develop the same or similar to address HIV. It seems like society and science still have a ways to go before medical issues and diseases that target marginalised populations are taken just as seriously.

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