In June 1981, the first cases of a mysterious and lethal illness affecting gay men were reported in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The illness was characterized by a rapidly failing immune system, and was subsequently termed Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

In 1984, the virus that caused AIDS was isolated and named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). In 1985, a diagnostic test to screen for HIV was developed, and within 3 years, the first anti-HIV therapy was approved. These rapid advancements led to optimism that an effective vaccine or curative therapy was just around the corner.

However, this was not the case. It took nearly another decade of research to sufficiently understand the virus before new classes of anti-retroviral drugs were developed. Today there are 30 anti-retroviral drugs available to HIV+ patients, allowing them to live longer, healthier lives. Despite these advances, there are an estimated 33.3 million people living with HIV worldwide, with an estimated 1.1 million in the United States (U.S.). While the infection rates in the U.S. have stabilized, there are still an estimated 56,000 new infections per year.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and, with this landmark anniversary, the question posed by many is: how close are we to a cure? The aim of this four-part series is to address this question by examining the advancements, shortcomings, and obstacles in curing and treating HIV/AIDS over the last 30 years. The last installment in this series will examine what’s on the horizon for novel therapies, as well as the renewed focus to find a cure.

Part I: Is the focus on HIV treatment distracting from the search for a cure?

Part II: New cooperative programs may jumpstart HIV vaccine development

Part III: HIV prevention and treatment programs still struggle for funding on World AIDS Day

Dr. Raymond Alvarez, Ph.D. is an HIV researcher at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.

[Image via Trygve Utstumo, Creative Commons licensed]