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AIDS Cure? Trials Show Vaccine Therapy Works For a Handful of Patients

Feb 24, 2017 04:12 PM EST

There's a glimmer of hope in the search for a cure for AIDS. In the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), researchers presented the findings of a small clinical study that showed some promise in using the vaccine as a "functional cure" in people already infected with the HIV virus.

According to a report from New Scientist, Beatriz Mothe of the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain began the trial three years ago with her team. The 25 participants, who were all recently diagnosed with HIV, were given two vaccines created by Tomáš Hanke and his team from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. They also took antiretroviral drugs (ART) and regularly monitored.

People diagnosed with HIV often take ART every day to stave off virus reproduction and damage to their immune system. These drugs are expensive with multiple side effects, but are necessary for the rest of the patient's life because of the virus's tendency to "hide" in tissues and emerge once the drugs are stopped.

Last year, 15 of the original patients each received one booster dose of the vaccine and three doses of a cancer drug called romidepsin that could flush remaining virus cells in hiding. After a last vaccine booster, they stopped their daily dosage of ARTs. The virus quickly re-emerged in 10 of them, but five patients were able to remain off the drugs with their virus suppressed for as long as six weeks to seven months.

"It's the proof of concept that through therapeutic vaccination we can really re-educate our T cells to control the virus," Mothe explained in Science Mag. "This is the first time that we see this is possible in humans."

Scientists are cautious as there have been many instances of early success only for the virus to eventually prevail. However, Mothe is optimistic of their results. She pointed out that unlike previous treatments, the new trials are two-pronged with the vaccines first priming the immune system to remove the active virus out of the body soon after infection, then the cancer drug flushing out the remaining HIV hiding in tissues.

"There's a long way to go," Mothe said. "But we're on the right path."

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