French scientists announced on Friday that 14 adults who were infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, were "functionally cured" of the infection by early treatment. According to Reuters, a team at Paris Descartes University followed patients who were administered anti-HIV medicines rapidly after infection and found, 7 years later, that the virus appeared to be beaten.
The study, published in the open access journal PLOS Pathogens, said that early treatment kept HIV from establishing a foothold in the patients' systems, and that even when they stopped treatment abruptly, the level of infected cells in their bodies continued to fall.
Professor Christine Rouzioux of Paris Descartes team, who was a part of the team of scientists that originally first identified HIV, called the 14 patients "post-treatment controllers."
"Early treatment in these patients may have limited the establishment of viral reservoirs, the extent of viral mutations, and preserved immune responses. A combination of those may contribute to control infection in post-treatment controllers," she told Reuters.
"The shrinking of viral reservoirs … closely matches the definition of 'functional' cure," she said, which means that the virus has been reduced to such low levels that it can be kept in check without continual treatment.
Most of the 34 million people in the world who are infected with HIV will need to take anti-viral medication for the rest of their lives to keep HIV from developing into full-blown AIDS. The medicines can be expensive and have serious side effects.
ScienceDaily.com said that part of what makes HIV so hard to treat and cure is that as it invades a patient's system, it establishes "sleeper" cells in reservoirs in the body. These "viral sanctuaries" keep conventional medicines and treatments from ever being able to completely rid the body of the invading virus.
The French report comes in the wake of news that a Mississippi toddler who was born with HIV, but who was administered anti-HIV drugs within hours of birth has also been functionally cured of HIV. Two years later, tests of the little girl's blood show no signs of the virus.
Asier Sáez-Cirión, a senior HIV researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris told Reuters that while most patients infected with HIV will not be able to control it without medication, there is a chance for those who are treated early enough after infection.
The new data, said Sáez-Cirión, and the Mississippi study "strongly support early treatment initiation and may hold important clues for the development of a strategy to cure HIV or at least induce a long-term control without the need of antiretroviral treatment."
Unfortunately, while this method of controlling the virus hinges on early treatment, most people who are infected by HIV do not know until much later. According to the World Health Organization, on average, 5 to 10 years can pass between infection with HIV and the appearance of symptoms, during which time, a sexually active person can infect multiple partners.
AIDS and HIV organizations worldwide advocate regular HIV testing and the adoption of safer sex protocols for sexually active people.