Five people with HIV are currently free of the virus thanks to a new vaccine-based treatment.
Researchers combined two innovative HIV vaccines with a drug usually used to treat cancer in the three-year study at the IrsiCaixa Aids Research Institute in Barcelona. After receiving treatment, the virus was undetectable in five of the 24 participants and its spread was stopped by their immune systems, the New Scientist reported.
One of them has been virus – and drug – free for seven months.
Lead scientist Beatriz Mothe and her team gave patients recently diagnosed with HIV two vaccines designed to recognise and destroy cells that have been infected by the virus. Researchers then monitored their immune response while the participants continued to take daily medication.
Fifteen of those being studied then received a booster dose of one of the vaccines and romidepsin, a drug used for cancer which has been shown to ‘flush out’ the HIV virus from tissues where it can lie dormant.
In 10 of the participants, the virus quickly returned and began to spread again. But in five, the virus has been undetectable.
It’s not clear why two-thirds of the group didn’t respond to the therapy – Mothe and her team are investigating into this now. But even a small reaction is positive news. The treatment is the first to stop the virus from replicating without the daily use of antiretroviral medication (ART).
The results suggest the vaccine may boost the immune system enough to allow those with HIV to suppress the virus without any drugs – though it’s not clear yet for how long.
Mothe said her team was ‘on the right path’ to developing a treatment which could offer an alternative to ART.
“It’s the proof of concept that through therapeutic vaccination we can really re-educate our T cells to control the virus. This is the first time that we see this is possible in humans,” Mothe said.
Though on a very small scale, the findings are important.
Around 18 million people – half of all those living with HIV – take ART to slow the progression of the virus, according to reports by the UN.
But these drugs are expensive, can cause side effects and sometimes need to be taken over the course of an entire lifetime.
According to New Scientist, providing ART to patients in low to middle-income countries cost $19 billion (£15 billion) in 2015 alone. If further research on the vaccine-based treatment is successful, huge savings could be made – both financially and in life.