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HIV 'Functional Cure' Possible With Early Antiretroviral Treatment Of Virus, Scientists Say

15/03/2013 11:36 GMT | Updated 15/05/2013 10:12 BST

Rapid treatment after HIV infection could be enough to “functionally cure” some patients, French scientists have announced.

Fourteen HIV positive patients who were quickly treated with antiretroviral drugs were found to have remained healthy - though still infected - despite having since stopped therapy.

The group of patients, known as the “Visconti cohort”, all began treatment within ten weeks of contracting the virus between the 1990s and 2000s.

Aged between 34 and 66, the group stopped treatment around three years in, on average.

They still have traces of HIV in their blood but at such low levels the virus is kept at bay even without continuing treatment.

Lead researcher Asier Sáez-Cirión, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, told AFP: "These individuals reflect what a functional cure may represent because they have been actually controlling the infection for many years now.

"I think this is proof of concept that this may be achieved in individuals. And that this happened thanks to early treatment onset."

Christine Rouzioux, a professor at Paris Descartes University told Reuters: "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.

"The shrinking of viral reservoirs … closely matches the definition of 'functional' cure."

antiretroviral drugs

The study found swift treatment of the virus with antiretroviral drugs could be enough to 'functionally cure' some patients

Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Using antiretroviral drugs at the early stages of infection to keep the virus at bay shows some promise.

“However, much more research is needed to monitor these patients and explore whether the approach has wider applications among larger groups with a range of drug resistance profiles.

“Treating HIV in this way relies on early intervention and serves to highlight the importance of routine testing to identify HIV infections as soon as possible. While this research may influence how we treat some people with HIV in the future, at present it remains the case that, for the vast majority of people, ceasing treatment will cause them to become very unwell.

“As research into future treatments continues, it is vital that people use condoms to prevent the spread of HIV today.”

The research, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, follows reports of a baby in Mississippi being “cured” of HIV after being born with the virus which causes Aids.

The baby was given a cocktail of drugs to treat HIV within 30 hours of its birth and, now aged two-and-a-half, is being lauded as “functionally cured” having been off medication for a year with no signs of infection.

However Dr Mark Siedner has challenged the reports, arguing that while the child was undoubtedly exposed to the virus, it may not have been infected in the first place.

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Dr Siedner warned the case may not be the breakthrough everyone had hoped for because “we will likely never know if those cells were from the child or maternal cells that had been transmitted during pregnancy or birth.”

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