WASHINGTON - For nearly three decades every December 1, we’ve heard about the tragedy of AIDS. Activists the world over put a spotlight on the AIDS virus on this day. They encourage testing and distribute leaflets with information on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, including how it spreads and how to keep from getting it. The United Nations Secretariat Building in New York is lighted with the red AIDS ribbon.
AIDS has killed 35 million people since the start of the pandemic. It’s left millions of orphans in its wake. Every year, 2 million people acquire the virus, and the U.N. estimates that more than 1 million people die from the virus annually.
Still, a lot has happened since the first World AIDS Day in 1988. Countries in which the topic was once taboo now offer testing and treatment. Mothers with HIV can have healthy babies and live to raise them. Drugs can keep the virus from spreading. More than 18 million people are on lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs that keep HIV in check. And now, scientists are talking about vaccines and a cure.
Watch: AIDS Vaccine Trial Underway in South Africa
A large-scale trial of a potential vaccine is underway in South Africa. The study will involve more than 5,400 sexually active men and women ages 18 to 35 in a number of areas around South Africa, a country where more than 1,000 people a day are infected with HIV. The trial will last for four years.
The study is funded by the U.S. government’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Dr. Anthony Fauci has directed for the past 32 years. While there’s a lot of hope that this vaccine could help bring an end to HIV/AIDS, Fauci is a realist.
“We have no idea whether it will work or not,” he said. “More vaccine trials fail than are successful ... the whole rationale for doing a trial is to see if it does work.”
Treatment comes a long way
The greatest success since the first World AIDS Day is in treatment. In 1988, a person with advanced AIDS could expect to live a year to a year-and-a-half.
“Today, the combinations of therapies we have for individuals, for someone who is in their 20s and gets infected and comes in and gets on a combination of drugs, you could predict that they could live an additional 50 years. That is one of the most extraordinary advances in the transition from basic research to an applicable intervention in any field of medicine,” Fauci said.
New, promising treatments for HIV/AIDS also are on the horizon. One study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine is looking at whether the body’s immune system can keep the virus in check. Dr. Pablo Tebas is the lead researcher and spoke to VOA by Skype.
“We infuse antibodies into the patients, the participants in the study, and we want to see if those antibodies will control the HIV virus … keep it quiet, and prevent the virus from coming back when we stop anti-retroviral therapy.”
Immunotherapy shows promise
The research is similar to the immunotherapy being done in the field of cancer. The technique uses proteins — antibodies — to attack cancer cells.
“When you think about oncology and cancer therapy with these immune-based therapies, what people are doing now in that field is to try to boost the immune system to eliminate the cancer cells. The problem of eliminating the HIV hideout is similar. You want to eliminate the cells that harbor the virus, and by making the immune system more active, in finding and eliminating those cells,” Tebas explained.
Researchers found that the antibodies suppressed the HIV virus for 21 days. The goal is to find a combination of antibodies that can suppress the virus for six months to a year. Then people infected with HIV will no longer have to take medicine every day for the rest of their lives.
A new trial using two antibodies should start in the next couple of months.