Search for HIV cure in spotlight at AIDS 2016

The search for HIV cure is of “paramount importance” and must be a priority for the future of HIV research, said Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, co-chair of the 21st International AIDS Society (AIS) conference.

Speaking at an event ahead of AIDS 2016, Nobel Laureate Barré-Sinoussi said research to achieve such cures is in a formative stage, but significant advances are being made towards an HIV cure.

“HIV cure research has the potential to alter the future of this epidemic. With 37 million people currently living with HIV worldwide, and another two million newly infected each year, an effective approach to curing or achieving sustained remission of HIV infection would be a ground-breaking advance in global health,” she said.

The AIS president Chris Beyrer is optimistic that a cure or sustainable remission for HIV is feasible if more focus is given to HIV cure research, alongside significant advances in understanding the scientific challenges and opportunities.

“HIV cure research has come into its own as an expanding multi-disciplinary field of inquiry and growing scientific interest, (there are) increasing numbers of promising scientific approaches towards a cure and a growing sense that a cure or sustainable remission for HIV is feasible,” Beyrer said.

HIV latency research

Professor Sharon Lewin the director of The Doherty Institute for infection and immunity at University of Melbourne said they are studying HIV reservoir virology and latency, which is a process by which HIV infection remains in the body despite the use of antiretroviral therapy.

She said the studies will aim to form clinical evidence that a sustained, albeit temporary, period of aviremia in HIV infected people can be achieved.

She mentioned that they are neutralising antibodies to be used in a combination approach to HIV cure to prove the safety and potential efficacy of novel strategies in gene therapy toward HIV remission or cure.

She said studies with monkeys have shown promising results in stimulating and eliminating latent virus.

Community involvement is key

Delegates also heard that communities and people affected by HIV must be engaged in research if the world is to find a cure for HIV.

Damian Kelly of the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) said that advocacy and community engagement plays a lead role in keeping research institutions, policy makers, and funders focused on the need for an HIV cure.

“HIV community engagement is also key both to informing patients and preparing them for participation in HIV cure studies, and to informing researchers and trial designers on the needs of study volunteers, who contribute so much to the search for an HIV cure,” he said.

Moses Nsubuga from Uganda who has lived with HIV for 21 years asked the researchers to empower communities living with HIV through knowledge dissemination and capacity building in order to present their interests and to participate knowledgeably in HIV cure research.

“(There must be) strengthened community engagement in HIV cure research efforts especially in public awareness and ethical trial design to ensure a successful implementation of the search. We are all looking for the cure so that we stop medication,” Nsubuga said.

Anthony Fauci of the United States National Institutes of Health asked donors not to take away funding from prevention and treatment saying it will have a negative impact on people’s lives.

“The presence of cure in the global response should not direct funding away from treatment, prevention and care programmes. It is important that donors, governments and the AIDS community make viable and sustainable economic investment in HIV cure research,” he said.

Investment into HIV cure more than doubled

A new analysis by the IAS HIV Cure resource tracking group and AVAC shows that global investments in HIV cure funding have more than doubled in the past four years.

In 2015, an estimated US$201.8 million was invested in cure research, representing an increase of 25 per cent over the US$160.8 million invested in 2014, and an increase of 129 per cent over the US$88.1 million invested in 2012.

The majority of investments (US$187.7 million) came from the public sector with US$14.73 million invested by philanthropies such as amfAR, CANFAR, Fair Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome Trust.

In 2015, the United States, through the U.S. National Institutes of Health, contributed the majority of public funding, with France, the European Union, Canada, Switzerland, United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia also being significant contributors to HIV cure research.